Mississippi is already one of the worst states for LGBT people in America. Now, it is one signature away from not just allowing, but openly endorsing discrimination.
While public attention was squarely focused on the recent anti-LGBT law in North Carolina—the first in the country to regulate transgender people’s use of public bathrooms based on their birth certificates—the Mississippi state legislature was busy voting on a bill that would take the state back to the Stone Age.
The bill, HB 1523, easily passed the Mississippi House and Senate and now must return to the House for some revisions before heading to Governor Phil Bryant’s desk. The Republican governor has said that he “will review it if and when it arrives on his desk.”
HB 1523 would expressly allow businesses and public employees to discriminate against LGBT people but it has been framed by its sponsor, Kim Davis superfan Representative Philip Gunn, as a protection of three “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
These beliefs are that marriage is between a man and a woman, sexual relations should only occur within a heterosexual marriage, and “biological sex” cannot be changed. Only two of these items qualify as beliefs: biological sex characteristics can be changed with hormones and surgery, and the bill’s definition of sex determination is scientifically inaccurate.
Based on these three “beliefs,” HB 1523, grants far-reaching permissions for social workers and private employers alike to deny services to LGBT people.
First and foremost, the bill grants religious organizations immunity from state punishment in the arenas of employment and housing. It also protects any individual who refuses to provide services—including “photography, poetry, videography, disc-jockey services” and “pastry artistry”—for same-sex weddings. As far as proposed anti-LGBT laws go, these provisions are fairly standard.
But the bill also sanctions an extreme range of discrimination far outside the purview of religious organizations. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has called it “appalling” and “horrific.”
HB 1523 would seemingly protect foster or adoptive parents who subject their children to dangerous conversion therapy based on the idea that they wish to “raise a child based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief.” Like 45 other states, Mississippi does not prohibit the practice of dangerous and debunked conversion therapy techniques on minors. HB 1523, then, would only embolden parents who seek to invalidate the identity of their gay or transgender children.
Unlike the North Carolina bill, the Mississippi law does not explicitly restrict transgender people’s use of public accommodations but it does grant business, employers, and schools immunity from state action if they wish to establish “sex-specific standards” for their “intimate facilities.” This would mean that transgender people’s right to use the bathroom in the state could legally vary by employer, by school, and even by building.
The bill bars any state punishment for physicians and therapists who decline to provide transgender health care. In theory, this provision could make transgender health care even less accessible than it is at present. A recent survey of endocrinologists found that a third are unwilling to offer hormone replacement therapy for transgender patients despite the existence of Endocrine Society guidelines and clear standards of care from the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH).
If it becomes law, HB 1523 would also allow fertility clinics to deny services such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) to same-sex couples based on a “sincerely held religious belief.”
Finally, the bill would permit marriage clerks, judges, and magistrates to recuse themselves from providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or solemnizing their weddings. In effect, the bill specifies that these government employees cannot be penalized by the state for refusing to do their jobs.
Not only is this bill mean-spirited, it is completely unnecessary to legalize anti-LGBT discrimination in Mississippi. Anti-LGBT discrimination is already legal in Mississippi.
The statewide non-discrimination law does not include sexual orientation or gender identity and neither does its hate crime legislation. Mississippi was the last state in the country to prohibit adoption by same-sex couples, only ending enforcement of its ban when a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional this Thursday.
In 2014, Mississippi passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which allows any organization or individual to sue over state laws that they perceive as attacks on their religious beliefs. This means that even if Mississippi were to pass legislation protecting LGBT people, it would almost certainly trigger a wave of litigation.
LGBT advocates are rallying against the bill but recent history in conservative states suggests that economic pressure would help persuade Governor Bryant to withhold his signature.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed an amended version of his state’s RFRA last April after businesses objected to the original law. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed his state’s anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bill earlier this week after substantial pressure from the NFL, the film industry, and other private interests. And since signing the North Carolina anti-LGBT law, over 90 CEOs and business leaders have called for Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature to repeal the discriminatory legislation.
Whether such tactics would work on Governor Bryant remains to be seen. Business Insider recently ranked the Mississippi economy 46th in the country based on its high unemployment and lowest-in-the-country GDP per capita. Retaliation from the business world could severely impact an already struggling state.
As HRC President Chad Griffin said, “Mississippi's economy and its reputation hang in the balance.”