New Mississippi Law Goes Both Ways, Apparently

April 14, 2014


The nation has a new state law that goes both ways, it seems. And the interesting thing about the law is that even its supporters think it doesn’t go all the way.

Last week, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act that lets the state’s citizens and businesses challenge laws they believe substantially conflict with their religious beliefs.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Several states have considered similar bills recently. In February, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that raised a ruckus across the land because it would have let business owners use their religious beliefs to discriminate against people, specifically homosexuals.

The big difference between the Mississippi law and the vetoed Arizona bill is that in Mississippi people and businesses can now sue in state court, not just in federal court, to prove an existing local ordinance or state law forces them into sin. In Arizona, homosexuality would have been put up there on the sign that reads: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Opponents of the Mississippi law, like the Human Rights Council (www.hrc.org), say it is now basically open season against gays in the Magnolia State because it could allow people to refuse service to gays and minorities by suing for exemptions to any future anti-discrimination laws. (It should be noted that there is no state law specifically against discrimination in Mississippi.)

Supporters say if the law had been around earlier, it could have helped a pastor fight a city ordinance that prevented setting up a church on the town square. The Holly Springs ordinance said 60 percent of the surrounding property owners had to agree to have a church as a neighbor.  The pastor had to take the fight to a federal court before the city would agree to a settlement.

Sound confusing? Well, it is. And, as happens when people start clamoring about who discriminates against whom, the arguments drip with irony.

Let’s write those two previous paragraphs another way:
Opponents of the Mississippi law say it is still possible for people to use their religion as a basis for discrimination, while supporters say the law will help keep people from being the victims of discrimination based on their religion.

The political process is another irony. Opponents to the bill flexed their political muscle from the get-go by raising a red rainbow flag of warning in the national media and through old-fashion statehouse arm twisting by organizations like GLADD (www.gladd.org) and the Human Rights Council that brought in celebrity big hitters like former ‘N Sync singer Lance Bass. This pushback resulted in several amendments to a bill that undoubtedly would have gone a whole lot farther up the dirt road of discrimination if the state had denied opponents their civil right to lobby and to protest.

History has its own irony to throw in. As pointed out by Mississippi house speaker Philip Gunn, the bill is pretty much like the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act  signed by President Clinton. In short, the act said the federal government has to have a really, really good reason to keep a person from exercising religious freedom. In other words, Uncle Sam better have a good excuse to compel a person to sin.

The Supreme Court later said the act does not apply to the states, which is why we’re seeing these restoration to religious freedom acts popping up all around the country.

Here is one last irony to throw in, just for good measure.  At the time, the RFRA had the support of not only the Christian Legal Society (https://www.clsnet.org/), but also the American Civil Liberties Union (https://www.aclu.org/), proving once again that politics makes for strange bedfellows.

One of the regulars down at Sparky’s Diner said something the other day that folks might want to keep in mind about this and future debates over religion freedom and discrimination. The freedom to have a belief, whether religious or sexual orientation, is not a license to impose that belief on those with different or differing beliefs.

Actually, the real comment was “Be careful, ‘cause someday, your ox is gonna be the one to get gored.”

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John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is johndavidpowell@yahoo.com.