In the past few days, Governor Phil Bryant (R-MS) signed two measures in order to preserve religious freedom in Mississippi. The first of the two bills is a bill intended to preserve the religious rights of students in the state at all levels of education. The second, broader bill, states that “State action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.” In other words, this bill can open the door to discrimination of gays and lesbians throughout the state. Both laws have set off a storm of controversy, and they both, while well intentioned, are bad for the state of Mississippi and religious freedom in the United States.
The first bill, preserving the religious rights of students, is unnecessary. Students already have protection to express their religious opinions in the classroom setting, so long as they do not discriminate against other students based on religion. The passing of the law is more symbolic than substance. The issue I is it perpetuates the idea that America is a culture where religion is banned from the realm of public schools. The Supreme Court simply asks for schools not to sponsor religious practices, but any students within the school may do so if he or she desires. The bill doesn’t expand the rights of students, since everything in the bill has been protected under the First Amendment. The concern people should have with this bill is that a legislature felt threatened enough to pass it, despite the proposal not really contributing much to the cause. The bill doesn’t solve anything, and tax payer dollars were wasted to draft the legislation and time was wasted for the legislature to vote on it.
If the second bill only wasted time and money, I would say the bills were equally trivial. However, SB2681 sets a dangerous precedent for Mississippi. The bill is intended to be a pre-emptive response to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case regarding whether employers must offer contraception coverage in their health care plans, but it has a more disconcerting side. The bill could allow business owners to discriminate against people simply for being homosexual. While I understand that many religious sects do no approve of gay marriage, to withhold a good or service to a category of people does not equate to opposing gay marriage, it is discrimination. It is also unconstitutional.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many businesses resisted to integration of their establishments. Ollie McClung, a restaurant owner in Birmingham, was one of many individuals who refused to integrate. The famous case of Katzenbach v. McClung, decided in late 1964, stated that Congress had acted within its right to ban discrimination by race in restaurants, in order to protect interstate commerce. The idea was that Mr. McClung may have had a restaurant in Alabama, but his suppliers worked outside of the state, and his discrimination would hurt his suppliers, potentially hurting other businesses from other states. Now, imagine for a minute that a fine dining establishment in Jackson decided to deny a gay couple from having an anniversary dinner at their restaurant on the basis of the religious belief that homosexuality is a sin. Both cases involve restaurants, an antagonist with strong beliefs, and individuals being discriminated against on the basis of characteristics the individuals were born with. If the law remains, it will eventually reach the Supreme Court, and based on the precedent of Katzenbach v McClung, SB2681 will be struck down as unconstitutional.
Beyond the implications that this bill has for homosexuals in Mississippi, the law paints an awful image on a state which has struggled with image issues for decades. Mississippi is consistently rated one of the worst states to live in, having high poverty and obesity rates, low literacy rates and a history still struggling with discrimination. The passage of this bill seems to be another chapter in the history of discrimination. Already lacking a complex economy, Mississippi could potentially miss out on countless economic expansions, due to businesses being wary of investing in a state with such bizarre laws. As seen in Arizona, the business opposition to the religious freedom bills was a crucial part of the decision to veto made by Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ). Apparently economic expansion doesn’t matter to Governor Bryant, however, since he chose to sign these two bills, which will put national franchises in the spotlight of whether they support these legislative measures. Based on what we have seen with Mozilla recently, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to anticipate boycotts of other national companies if they have business stationed in Mississippi. Additionally, one can only imagine what companies will do now if they originally planned to expand into Mississippi, especially if the economy of Mississippi is about to shrink. The economy will indeed shrink, due to limited options as a result of limiting freedom of choice in the market place.
Ironically, despite having freedom in their texts, neither bills actually expand freedom to individuals in the state of Mississippi. Instead, we see freedom being taken away from individuals. Mississippi already has a horrid legacy of discrimination against fellow Americans, and it appears some groups wish to legalize discrimination to groups for reasons beyond race. Mississippi already struggles with these perceptions and realities, and these bills will just set them back a little more. As much as I hate to say it, Mississippi just became a little worse.