By Emily Wagster Pettus/Associated Press
JACKSON – A Mississippi House panel will decide Tuesday whether to kill a religious-practices bill or keep it alive with or without changes.
Critics say the bill could lead to discrimination against gay people and other groups. But, supporters say it would reinforce religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Senate Bill 2681 is called the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and it’s similar to a bill that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last week after critics said the measure could lead to anti-gay discrimination.
The Mississippi bill passed the state Senate Jan. 31 and faces a Tuesday deadline in the House Judiciary B Committee.
A subcommittee proposes removing parts of the bill that would allow people to refuse service to others based on religious beliefs. If the full committee accepts the changes, the bill would say state government cannot infringe on religious practices.
“We’re still studying the bill,” the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, said Monday.
The bill also would add “In God We Trust” to the state seal, as requested by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, based at the University of Mississippi and named for a former governor, issued a statement Monday calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. It said if the bill becomes law, Mississippi would be under a “shameful cloud of discrimination” that would hurt economic development.
“Just as a restaurant shouldn’t be able to refuse a meal to customers because of their race, neither should a pharmacist be able to deny medicine to someone because he or she is gay,” the institute’s statement said. “The archaic and broadly-written measure under debate has far-reaching implications we can’t yet fathom. Doctors, law firms, banks and even hotels could use this law to turn away, in the name of religion, people and families in need of service.”
Supporters of the Mississippi bill have a letter signed by 14 out-of-state law professors who endorse the measure. The letter’s author, Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, wrote that the bill is similar to religious freedom restoration laws enacted by the federal government and 18 states. Laycock wrote that the Article 3, Section 18 of the Mississippi Constitution guarantees religious freedom.
“This does not make the act unnecessary…. Future courts hostile to religious liberty might re-interpret Article 3, Section 18, to give less protection to religious liberty (or to give none at all),” Laycock wrote.
When the Mississippi Senate debated and passed the bill 48-0, there was no mention of whether the measure would allow discrimination against gay people or other groups. Rather, the debate focused on whether there’s a need for a state law to spell out the freedom to practice religion that’s already guaranteed.