US reacts to Mississippi governor signing bill allowing refusal of service to gays

The national reaction was swift and strong to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s decision Tuesday to sign the controversial Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act into law.

The law allows discrimination by individuals, businesses and religiously affiliated organizations that have “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” against transgender people, same-sex marriage and sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.

In an afternoon call with reporters, Eric Fleming, director of advocacy and policy with the ACLU of Mississippi, said the group was examining its next move after the defeat.

“We’re disappointed,” Fleming said. “We were hoping a lot that the business community stepping up the way they did, and other people of faith and so on, would at least have him reflect on the decision.”

Fleming said the group was examining possible legal action.

In a statement, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ civil rights organization, criticized Bryant for not meeting with LGBTQ people who came to the capital to protest this week.

“He refused to listen to business leaders. He refused to listen to Mississippians. And now his state will suffer because of his ignorance and failure of leadership,” Griffin’s statement read. “Just as we’re doing elsewhere, we will continue to rally fair-minded voters, businesses and civil rights advocates to repeal.”

In Congress, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland issued a statement saying the law runs counter to constitutional principles.

“Every individual, every married couple and every family in America deserves to be treated with equal respect and equal dignity. I will continue speaking out against such laws and supporting efforts to prove them unconstitutional in court,” Hoyer wrote.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, a Biloxi Republican, had expressed his support for the bill, saying in a statement that the U.S. Supreme Court decision last June allowing same-sex marriage had undermined the will of the people of Mississippi.

“Therefore, it should come as no shock that states stripped of their constitutional authorities would take actions like this to protect the religious freedoms of their citizens,” Palazzo wrote. “Enough is enough. I continue to stand strong on this issue and support the objective of this bill to protect individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released a statement saying Bryant had “turned back the clock to a dark time in Mississippi’s past,” adding that religious liberty is meant to protect people from discrimination, not to deny civil rights and equality.

“These are the same arguments used to oppose women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the abolition of slavery,” Henderson wrote. “Today they are being used against the LGBTQ community. There’s no place for a measure like this if Mississippi aspires to move past its legacy of discrimination.”

In addition to allowing government-funded social service agencies not to serve people who go against their religious views, the Mississippi law “invites schools and businesses to refuse to allow transgender people to use the appropriate restroom facilities” and “explicitly authorizes businesses open to the public to turn away customers seeking any range of services, including birth announcements, wedding dresses and more,” said Rose Saxe, a senior staff attorney with the national ACLU’s LGBTQ and HIV Project.

The Mississippi law is part of a national effort to oppose LGBT equality through three types of legislation: religious exemption laws like Mississippi’s HB 1523; pre-emption laws, which ban cities and towns from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances; and laws that exploit “trans phobia,” or the deep lack of knowledge about transgender people, said James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ and HIV Project.

South Dakota Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed such a transgender bill in March.

In Tennessee, HB 2414 and SB 2387 would limit restroom and locker room access by transgender students based on the sexes listed on their birth certificates.

In Missouri, SJR39, a broad religious-exemption bill that targets same-sex couples, is moving through the legislature. The measure, if approved by the lawmakers, would then be voted on in a statewide ballot.