Mississippi Passes Religious-Freedom Law

by Andrew Johnson
The state escaped Arizona-style controversy by hewing to federal precedent.

Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act in a private ceremony on Thursday. The bill is intended to protect business owners’ religious rights not to provide services that violate their beliefs.

Seen as a response to recent lawsuits that have required business owners to bake a cake for or photograph same-sex weddings, the bill managed to escape the controversy that killed a similar bill in Arizona last month.

Gay-rights activists say Mississippi’s bill is aimed at allowing businesses to discriminate against gay customers. But supporters of the Mississippi law reject comparisons to the controversial Arizona bill, which was vetoed by the state’s governor, Jan Brewer. In fact, backers say, while an early version included broad language similar to that of the Arizona bill, the final language is narrower and resembles the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Both the federal bill and Mississippi bill, as Reason’s Scott Shackford notes, require the government to prove a compelling interest to force business owners to go against their beliefs and don’t allow them to use religion as justification for any form of discrimination.

The Mississippi Economic Council noted that there were revisions of the bill to address concerns that it was too much like Arizona’s broader legislation. The MEC originally opposed the bill but approved of the final version because it mostly resembled federal legislation.

“The legislature understands the need to follow the federal approach, and if they do that, we’re fine,” a representative told MSNBC prior to its passage. “We’re not going to have a discrimination problem.”

Although it still objected to the law, even the American Civil Liberties Union said that Mississippi “removed some of the egregious language from Arizona’s infamous SB 1062.”

Nonetheless, Mississippi’s bill still had its critics. Unlike the national media storm that followed the Arizona bill, Mississippi’s bill went relatively unnoticed for the most part, but outrage was issued from the usual sources. After the bill passed out of the state house, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern titled his piece “Mississippi Passed Its Anti-Gay Segregation Bill. Will It Be Struck Down?” Zack Ford of ThinkProgress also called the bill “anti-gay” and noted that it was backed by “anti-LGBT hate group” the Family Research Council. (The offices of which, incidentally, were shot up by a deranged individual in 2012 because he’d heard it referred to as a hate group.)

The left-wing screeds ultimately weren’t enough to derail the bill.

“I am proud to sign the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act today, which will protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference,” Governor Bryant said.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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