Mississippi joins in a race to the bottom for the most extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation in the country, as on Thursday the state legislature is expected to send an unprecedented "religious freedom" bill to the governor's desk for signing.
The bill was approved by the state Senate late on Wednesday, only a week after North Carolina passed its own sweeping discrimination law in a highly unusual process that critics decried as a "bait-and-switch."
And just days ago, Georgia's Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar bill—"so broad that it would even protect the Ku Klux Klan," as Terrance Heath, the online producer for Campaign for America's Future, wrote—which was passed by both the state Senate and House.
But Mississippi's bill is "probably the worst religious freedom bill to date," said Ben Needham, director of LGBTQ advocacy group Project One America, to BuzzFeed News.
Mississippi's House Bill 1523, titled the "Religious Liberty Accommodations Act," permits nearly any kind of discrimination imaginable, so long as the perpetrator cites religious belief as an excuse.
— ACLU of Mississippi (@ACLU_MS) March 31, 2016
Under the law, a LGBTQ couple could be refused a wedding cake from a local baker; a couple living together but not married could be legally barred from fostering a child or renting a car; a volunteer at a suicide hotline could refuse to speak to a transgender person. The measure even explicitly allows employers to set gender-specific dress codes—meaning women could be fired for wearing pants, as ThinkProgress points out.
The Washington Post summarized the stunning lengths to which the law goes in permitting discrimination:
[...] public employees, businesses, and social workers cannot be punished for denying services based on the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. Same goes for people who act on the belief that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage” and that gender is determined at birth. It says the government can’t prevent businesses from firing a transgender employee, clerks from refusing to license a same-sex marriage, or adoption agencies from refusing to place a child with a couple who they believe may be having premarital sex.
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"The bill permits so many acts that it's impossible to sum them up," writes New York Magazine's Claire Landsbaum.
Essentially, under the proposed measure any person can refuse service to anyone who violates their "sincerely held" religious beliefs. And as Buzzfeed reports, Mississippi lawmakers made certain that the bill defined "person" in broad terms—the word can denote a "sole proprietorship, or closely held company, partnership, association, organization, firm, corporation, cooperative, trust, society or other closely held entity."
Republican members of the state legislature argue that the law is intended to fight back against the Supreme Court's decision last year that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But if the law is only about same-sex marriage, state senator John Horhn wondered during a Senate session, "why does it include adoptions? [...] Why does it allow discrimination in medical services? The reason we are so adamantly opposed to it is because we have already been there."
Horhn, a Democrat, also "read passages from the Book of Ephesians and others that had been used by Christians to justify slavery," reported the New York Times.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't need to put another stain on Mississippi," the newspaper quoted Horhn as saying. "We don't need to demonstrate to the rest of the world how backwards we are in our thinking. Let's do the right thing."
The bill passed in the Senate easily, with a vote of 31-17.
As the rights advocacy coalition the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights pointed out, "Mississippi has been down this road before."
"Ross Barnett, a former Mississippi governor," the coalition recalled, "once used religion to justify Jim Crow laws by calling God 'the original segregationist.'"
The versions of the bill passed in the state House and Senate differed slightly, and so the Senate's version of the bill is being sent again to the House for approval, which is expected to happen quickly (it was approved 80-39 in February). The legislation will then go to the governor's desk for his signature, which is also expected, as he has vocally expressed his support for the bill.
"I don't think it's discriminatory," said Gov. Phil Bryant earlier this week to local news channel WLOX. "I think it gives some people as I appreciate it, the right to be able to say that's against my religious beliefs and I don't need to carry out that particular task."
The governor's defense of the law is nothing new, critics note. "Religious arguments have also been used in our nation to oppose women's suffrage, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the abolition of slavery," the Leadership Conference wrote. "Bryant's choice is clear: Either follow the path of progress or turn back the clock to the time of Ross Barnett."