U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking her to review House Bill 1523 and file a lawsuit against the state if she finds it to be unconstitutional.
Photo by Arielle Dreher.
Standing near a huge Nissan Titan truck at the automaker's Canton plant, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson reiterated today that House Bill 1523 is harmful to Mississippi's reputation and economic future, vowing to fight it through legal and federal avenues.
Thompson said he is urging the Department of Justice to review House Bill 1523, the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," and file a lawsuit against the state. The District 2 congressman from Mississippi, who represents most of the city of Jackson, was in Canton Thursday morning to speak at a donation presentation at the Nissan plant. Nissan is donating $250,000 across the state's six HBCUs to promote STEM initiatives at each college.
Thompson spoke to reporters after the event about his letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch concerning House Bill 1523.
"It's unfortunate that we have to take it to that level, but the bill is law now, and unless the Legislature takes up some kind of repealer or something like that, the only alternative left is the courts," Thompson said Thursday.
The congressman said he doesn't want Mississippi to participate in any form of discrimination—and said that HB 1523 discriminates on its face. Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law on Tuesday, April 5, saying in a Twitter statement that the bill will "protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government." Critics of the bill now include large corporations including GE, Hyatt Hotels, Whole Foods and PepsiCo who together wrote an open letter to the governor, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves calling on them to repeal the bill.
Mississippians are organizing against the bill as well. The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association created the "Everyone's Welcome Here" campaign, with plans to distribute "Everyone's Welcome Here" stickers to participating restaurants and businesses by late April.
"Regardless of its intent, this legislation has created a level of controversy and public perception that affects the image of our state and the hospitality community," the association's executive director, Mike Cashion, said in a statement. "And while we may not be able to manage the image and brand of the entire state, we can affect the image of our restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses. When our industry is challenged, we as an organization will take prudent steps to protect and promote the restaurant and hospitality industry."
House Bill 1523 technically becomes law in the state July 1. Lawsuits against the state are likely to ensue even before then. If the Department of Justice doesn't file suit, Thompson said other organizations, including the ACLU and the NAACP, have said "they would consider filing lawsuits."
Thompson's letter suggests that the bill violates parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prevents discrimination against an individual based on race, color, religion, sex or origin. A memo from seven law professors (including two from the University of Mississippi Law School and two from the Mississippi College School of Law) suggests that parts of the bill violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution "by impermissibly accommodating religion in a way that harms third parties." The letter states that, specifically, the parts of the bill that address government employees and recipients of government grants and contracts violate the Establishment Clause.
Thompson, who will run for re-election in November, said he will likely meet with Attorney General Lynch next week once the U.S. House of Representatives is back in session. Thompson said he is concerned about what the bill will do to business development in the state.
"When you're talking about international companies, like Nissan here, and others who've already expressed concern about it (HB 1523), you have to understand that when they look for opportunities, other states can say, 'Look, the people in Mississippi are picking on folk, you should come to our state because we don't do that,'" Thompson said in Canton on Thursday. "I wouldn't want to give an unfair advantage to another state just because we passed a bill that discriminates against a certain segment of the population."
Thompson added that while there might be some of his constituents who don't agree with his stance on HB 1523, it's about taking a stand and leadership.
"You don't take a poll to decide what position you take; you decide on its merits whether it's right or wrong," Thompson said. "And I think people respect you for that more than sitting back and trying to take a poll before you take a position."
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @arielle_amara. For more cover House Bill 1523, visit jfp.ms/lgbt.