Growing up in Mississippi, it seemed we were always competing with Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana over which state could be the worst in education, health care, economic development and other vital issues. Most competitors try to be the best at their craft, but our competition was a race to the bottom.
The phrase, "Thank God for (insert the state name here)" is ingrained in our way of life and said with pride; yet the same phrase has often killed our demand for better leadership from state lawmakers. As a proud Mississippian, I have used this saying in debates with northern friends, friends from the competing states and other Mississippians. It is a saying I am trying to cut out of my vocabulary, not just because it has new meaning for me, but because I want all four states to get off the bottom. True competitors don't compete for 49th—they want to be the best.
Even though I am diligently trying to stop using "Thank God for Alabama," it seemed only fitting to use it in this piece. Both Alabama and Mississippi have finished their legislative sessions, and it was a year full of anti-LGBT legislation in both states. The Human Rights Campaign fought to defeat Alabama's seven anti-LGBT bills and the 12 measures in Mississippi. Alabama seemed poised to pass HB 158, the Child Care Provider Inclusion Act, which would have allowed discrimination against LGBT children and families, and would have let child-care agencies refuse to place children with loving LGBT families, including the child's own grandparent. HB 158 wasn't about protecting our children or religious freedom—this legislation was about discrimination, plain and simple.
In this case, I can use "Thank God for Alabama." The child care-services bill is dead, and fair-minded Alabamians can claim victory in stopping this attack on the LGBT community. Mississippi, on the other hand, chose to add discrimination to its state laws by passing HB 1523. The law, which goes into effect July 1, allows taxpayer-funded government employees to engage in Kim Davis-style discrimination against the LGBT community. Clerks and justices of the peace can refuse to give marriage licenses to same sex-couples. Businesses can refuse to provide flowers, cakes and other services to same-sex couples on the most important day of their lives.
Worse yet, the measure allows religiously affiliated food pantries, homeless shelters and other service providers to refuse to fully recognize same-sex couples and their families.
The law is an obvious attempt to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of marriage equality. Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had numerous chances to stop this horrendous piece of legislation and failed to listen to fair-minded Mississippians and the business community. Gov. Bryant, who has turned me and LGBT citizens away from his office, has yet to sit down with the LGBT community about HB 1523. Instead of standing in the doorway of the State Capitol with open arms, they stand at the state line turning away LGBT people and pro-equality businesses. While Alabama appears to want to move away from its dark past, Mississippi seems to want to relive its tainted history.
As a Mississippian, I have always defended my home state against people who have a negative perception of it, but that is getting harder and harder. I know there are great people in Mississippi who believe in equality for all; I have the pleasure to call some of them friends. HB 1523 does not reflect their views, and I thank them for their support of the LGBT community. More and more Mississippians are going to have to speak out against this discriminatory law if we expect leaders to repeal HB 1523. I congratulate Alabama for getting through another legislative session without adding hate to the state laws.
If Mississippi wants to know how to treat LGBT citizens, it can look east to Alabama. So today "Thank God for Alabama" has new meaning for me.
Ben Needham is the director of the Human Rights Campaign's Project One America initiative.