Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant approved a contentious bill on Tuesday that permits individuals, businesses, and religious organizations — including homeless shelters, adoption agencies, hospitals, and schools — to refuse services to gay couples and transgender people.
House Bill 1523, also known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, seeks to protect the "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions" that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that "male" and "female" refer only "to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth." The bill was passed by the Mississippi State Senate last week by a vote of 31 to 17.
The new law makes it perfectly legal for a government employee to refuse to issue a marriage license to a gay couple, and for any business affiliated with marriages or weddings — florists, DJs, catering companies, photographers, and so on — to refuse service. It also says foster parents are at liberty to "guide" a gay or transgender kid in their care into heteronormativity.
The proposed legislation sparked outrage among a wide range of human and civil rights groups. LGBT advocates in Mississippi, as well as business groups such as the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Nissan North America, and Tyson Foods, had called on the governor to veto the bill ahead of his signing it into law on Tuesday.
After signing the bill this morning, Bryant appeared on SuperTalkMS, a conservative talk radio station, to discuss its contents and implications. He insisted that the bill does not sanction discrimination against LGBT people but rather simply prevents "government from interfering with people of faith who are exercising their religious beliefs."
"This bill does not create one action against any class or group of people" Bryant said.
Amid the recent flurry of similarly extreme anti-LGBT legislation, Mississippi's bill is in a league of its own.
"No other state has passed a law like this," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. "Mississippi also has the dubious distinction of being the first state to codify discrimination based on a religious belief or moral conviction that members of the LGBTQ community do not matter."
Under the new law, which goes into effect on July 1, medical personnel are permitted to refuse any treatment related to sex reassignment surgery or gender dysphoria, including psychological counseling. Therapists, counselors, and fertility doctors can also refuse to treat an LGBT individual or couple.
Landlords and homeowners can refuse to lease or sell a property to an LGBT individual or couple. Employers can discipline, fire, or choose not to hire "an individual whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent" with their own.
For some, Bryant's decision is a major victory. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group, released a statement applauding Bryant and other government officials who supported the bill "for standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the people they represent."
"No person should be punished by the government with crippling fines, or face disqualification for simply believing what President Obama believed just a few years ago, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Perkins said.
Bryant tweeted that he was signing the bill into law to protect religious beliefs and moral convictions of "individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government or its political subdivisions, which would include counties, cities and institutions of higher learning. This bill merely reinforces the right which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment."
The governor added that the bill does not challenge federal law. In a landmark ruling last year, the Supreme Court decided that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.
Ten other states have passed or are considering similar bills. Last month, North Carolina's governor signed a measure that mandates transgender individuals to use whichever bathroom matches the sex on their birth certificate and blocks local municipalities from passing anti-discrimination laws protecting their LGBT community. Georgia's governor vetoed a similar bill after major corporations and businesses threatened to take their operations elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mississippi Democratic Party spokesperson Ouida Meruvia told the Clarion-Ledger that the move was "incredibly disappointing."
"Instead of tearing down walls that divide, the Republican Party has spent this session building new barriers of bigotry," Meruvia said. "We must do better."
"This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi," said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "This bill flies in the face of the basic American principles of fairness, justice and equality and will not protect anyone's religious liberty. Far from protecting anyone from 'government discrimination' as the bill claims, it is an attack on the citizens of our state."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen