April 9, 2016

Mississippi's New Religious Freedom Law Creates Controversy

With the recent passage of HB 1523, legislation that legalizes discrimination against LGBT couples based on "sincerely held religious belief," Mississippi has been receiving quite a bit of negative attention. This is not particularly surprising when once considers that many human rights advocates see this as one of the worst of the many religious freedom bills springing up across the U.S. What has been a bit more surprising is just how much opposition is coming from Mississippi's citizens and business leaders. It is still too early to tell what sort of impact this might have, but I find it quite encouraging.

Mississippi's Hospitality and Restaurant Association is understandably concerned about what this new legislation is going to do to the already poor impression most of the rest of the country has of our state. They are launching an "Everyone's Welcome Here" campaign aimed at damage control. This is a nice gesture; however, it is difficult to imagine that it will make much of a difference as long as the new law is effective. The real hope is that organizations like this will begin to advocate for repeal of the law once they realize that it will hurt their members. Fortunately, it sounds like this may already be starting to happen.

Since the new law has not yet taken effect, it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and what adverse consequences may result from it. For example, some have suggested that it may have a much broader impact than some realize. According to an article by Sierra Mannie in the Jackson Free Press:
"The pieces that are specific in the bill, at least by our reading, is that it looks like school counselors would be able to deny counseling services to trans or non gender-conforming students," Nathan Smith, director of public policy at the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview. "School officials and principals can also choose to block restroom access to gender non-conforming students. They can implement dress codes that require students to wear clothes that don't correspond with their gender identity."
If the new law ends up having such wide-ranging effects in public and private schools, it seems almost certain that it will face legal challenges sooner than later.

Moreover, it seems almost certain that the law will perform as designed in the sense that it is going to be used by evangelical fundamentalist Christians in Mississippi to discriminate against those they consider "sinful." It is difficult to see how any non-Christians will derive any benefits, raising questions about whether this law violates the Establishment Clause. Mannie quotes Nathan Smith as saying:
"Everybody is entitled to their religious beliefs," Smith said. "It becomes problematic when you enshrine specific religious beliefs for protection under the law over the religious beliefs of others."
Mississippi's new law does not take effect until July 1. Our state still has some time to do the right thing. And if it does not, the courts may be our next best hope.