Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves blessed the passage of a controversial "Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination" bill. "“This bill simply protects those individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs," he said after the vote.
Photo by Imani Khayyam.
JACKSON JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi government employees or private business people could cite their own religious objections to same-sex marriage to deny services to gay or lesbian couples under a bill that advanced in the state Senate late Thursday.
Because the Senate made a change to House Bill 1523, the measure returns to the House for more work. It was filed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Nine other states filed similar bills this year.
Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, said that after the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, states started setting restrictions on the procedure. She said the same thing is happening now as states try to protect the beliefs of people who have sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
"I like to think of this bill as presenting a solution to the crossroads where we find ourselves today," said Branning, an attorney.
The bill is similar to one that the Republican governor of Georgia vetoed Monday after business groups said it would allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The Mississippi bill says a circuit clerk could deny a marriage license to a same-sex couple but would have to take "all necessary steps" to ensure a license is not delayed. However, senators did not fully explain what would happen if all employees of a clerk's office cite the same religious objections.
The bill says the state could not punish businesses that refuse to sell goods or services to same-sex couples or religious groups that refuse to let gay or lesbian people be foster or adoptive parents.
Opponents said it would lead to mistreatment of LGBT people in a state that lacks laws to protect people from being fired because of their sexual orientation.
"We don't need to put another stain on Mississippi," said Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson, citing the state's history of slavery and segregation.
Rob Hill is the Mississippi director of Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.
"It says to LGBT individuals in Mississippi what they've heard all their lives, that they're second-class citizens," Hill said after the vote.
The bill, which passed the House Feb. 19, says the state could not punish anyone for acting on a belief that a person's gender is unchangeable from birth — a provision aimed at preventing transgender people from using a restroom or spa for the gender with which they identify.
Senators rejected an attempt by Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, to remove references to birth gender. She said some children are born with both male and female characteristics and they undergo gender assignment surgery based on decisions made by their parents and physicians.