A sweeping, so-called “religious freedom” bill went into effect in Mississippi on October 10, and advocates are calling it the “worst anti-LGBTQ state law in the U.S.” Mississippi’s “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” claims to protect “sincerely held religious beliefs” but would in fact give religious organizations, businesses, and individuals broad license to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people. The law is a legislative embodiment of the right-wing media myth that LGBTQ equality has led to the persecution of Christians, and it was heavily influenced and crafted in part by anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerful legal organization that has been involved in pushing similar legislation across the country.
Mississippi’s extreme anti-LGBTQ law HB 1523 went into effect on October 10
Mississippi’s anti-LGBTQ “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523), which Mother Jones called “one of the nation’s most sweeping religious exemption laws,” went into effect on October 10. The law permits “widespread discrimination based on ‘sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.’” Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed the bill into law in April 2016, but its implementation stalled after a court challenge led to a district judge issuing an injunction that blocked the bill. On June 22, a federal appeals court lifted the district court’s injunction. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the law allows “discrimination by individuals, businesses, religiously-affiliated organizations — including hospitals, schools, shelters and others — against LGBT people, single mothers, and vulnerable young people in Mississippi” based on religious beliefs. After the law took effect on October 10, Lambda Legal and the Mississippi Center For Justice filed an appeal asking that the U.S. Supreme Court strike it down.
Five things the media need to know about Mississippi’s HB 1523, “the nation’s worst anti-LGBTQ state law”:
1. The bill codifies 3 “sincerely held religious beliefs,” including opposition to both marriage equality and sex outside of marriage
According to the ACLU, HB 1523 is unique in that it makes Mississippi “the first state to codify discrimination based on a religious belief or moral conviction that members of the LGBTQ community do not matter.” Indeed, the bill purports to be designed to protect people with three specific “sincerely held religious religious beliefs”: that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman,” that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage,” and that “male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” The law gives individuals, private associations, and religiously affiliated organizations license to legally make discriminatory actions against LGBTQ people and others under the guise of holding those three positions.
2. HB 1523 is the “broadest" anti-LGBTQ law enacted since same-sex marriage was legalized
According to The Associated Press, HB 1523 is “considered the broadest religious-objections state law enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.” The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has also spoken out against the law, calling it “the “worst anti-LGBTQ state law in the U.S.” and “probably the worst religious freedom bill to date.”
HRC wrote that “under this law, almost any individual or organization could justify discrimination againist LGBTQ people, single mothers, unwed couples, and others.” The organization outlined examples of potential areas of discrimination, noting that “taxpayer funded faith-based organizations could: refuse to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples for provision of critical services including emergency shelter; deny children in need of loving homes placement with LGBTQ families including the child’s own family member; and refuse to sell or rent a for-profit home to an LGBTQ person.” It could also allow foster families to force LGBTQ children into dangerous “conversion therapy,” a harmful practice that attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity and that has been discredited by every mainstream medical group. The law also allows religious organizations to terminate or discipline an employee “for being gay, trans, or pro-gay, even if they have roles that have nothing to do with religion or education,” according to The Daily Beast.
The law’s text notes that the government cannot act against individuals who decline to treat, counsel, perform gender affirmation surgery, provide psychological services, or provide fertility services to LGBTQ individuals, single mothers, and others based on codified religious beliefs. According to The Daily Beast, HB 1523 would also give schools, businesses, and other organizations license to discriminate against transgender people, as this law could be used to force transgender individuals to use bathrooms that do not align with their gender identity or “to dress as their biological sex at birth.” The law explicitly allows employers and schools to establish "sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming.”
Under HB 1523, even government employees are given legal protections to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The Daily Beast wrote that state employees can “proselytize, condemn homosexuals as sinners, argue that gay people should be killed, or put up posters condemning homosexuality as a sin” at their jobs without fear of discipline. The law explicitly allows state employees and judges to recuse themselves "from authorizing or licensing lawful marriages.” That means that county clerks, judges, and magistrates could refuse to authorize same-sex marriages without consequence.
3. HB 1523 is the legislative embodiment of the right-wing media myth that LGBTQ equality has led to the persecution of Christians
For years, right-wing media have peddled the myth that Christians are being persecuted by LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, particularly focusing on anti-gay small-business owners who refuse to provide services for same-sex couples. Fox News has long touted stories of business owners -- including a photographer, baker, and florist -- who refused to provide services to same-sex couples and were then sued for violating nondiscrimination ordinances, and Fox News employees Todd Starnes and Erick Erickson have written books devoted to the anti-LGBTQ Christian persecution myth.
Other right-wing media outlets have adopted a similar myth that LGBTQ-inclusive protections will lead to the persecution of Christians. For example, Jonathon Van Maren of Life Site News claimed that there has been a “rapid rise of rainbow fascism” leading to the destruction of businesses owned by Christians. Van Maren continued, “Christian business owners saw the wages they needed to feed their families dry up because they were targeted by gay activists and labeled hateful, homophobic bigots simply for declining to assist in celebrating a gay union.” A post in The Daily Caller listed examples of “LGBT anti-Christian bullying,” arguing that “the fight for respect and equal rights for gays and lesbians has ... occasionally been co-opted by anti-Christian bigots who target individuals’ businesses and threaten them with violence.” Some right-wing websites, like RedState, have used the pejorative term “gay mafia” to describe activists fighting business discrimination against LGBTQ people. A post using the term in its headline asserted that LGBTQ activists’ “primary objective is the complete and utter destruction of morality and Christianity in America–and in the end, the Constitutional rights of every American.”
4. Anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom helped write, promote, and justify the law and fought for it in court
According to The Washington Post, anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was heavily involved in the creation of HB 1523, starting its work on the bill before the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. The Post reported that ADF lawyer Austin R. Nimocks first emailed a lawyer in Gov. Bryant’s office on June 24, 2015, and in one of his emails attached what he called a “model executive order that would prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views or actions concerning marriage.” Mississippi’s bill “adopted many of the identical passages,” according to a brief by an attorney leading challenges against the bill. In March 2016, ADF attorney Kellie Fiedorek sent Bryant two drafts of a signing statement, which is “the final step in the legislative process,” saying, “We looked through a number of Gov. Bryant’s signing statements and tried to use his voice. Please feel free to pull from either one that is most helpful to you and your boss ... we’re here to serve.”
ADF has also provided legal support to Bryant and other Mississippi officials. The group represented Bryant and John Davis, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, after a federal judge blocked the entire bill from taking effect on June 30, 2016. When the case reached the U.S Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, ADF attorneys joined Bryant in issuing a brief in favor of the law and were a part of his legal team.
5. ADF has been involved in writing, promoting, and defending RFRAs in other states
ADF has been directly involved in the drafting of other state “religious freedom” or “religious freedom restoration acts” (RFRAs), including working quietly with a state senator in Iowa earlier this year. There, ADF worked on legislation modeled after Indiana’s 2015 RFRA, signed by now-Vice President Mike Pence. The ACLU of Iowa successfully worked with partner groups and businesses to block its introduction. In 2014, ADF helped write Arizona’s SB 1062 -- a vetoed bill that would have expanded legal protections for businesses refusing service to gay customers -- and in 2015, ADF “had a hand in” writing Georgia's tabled RFRA.
ADF lawyers have also testified on behalf of or directly promote so-called “religious freedom” bills; in fact, ADF’s vice president of media communications, Greg Scott, characterized enacting RFRAs as “a legislator’s most important duty.” In 2013, ADF senior counsel Joel Oster testified in favor of Kansas' RFRA, which was signed into law that year, and in 2015, ADF senior counsel Michael J. Norton testified in defense of Colorado’s failed “Freedom of Conscience Protection Act.” The organization also promoted a RFRA in Arkansas and helped advise Indiana lawmakers during the debate over the state’s RFRA. In 2016, ADF attorney Matt Sharp testified before the South Dakota legislature in support of a law promising to “ensure government nondiscrimination in matters of religious beliefs and moral convictions,” and ADF counsel Kellie Fiedorek spoke about the so-called “benefits” of a RFRA proposed in West Virginia.
In addition, ADF's reach extends beyond its own representatives’ support for enacting RFRAs to state legislatures where ADF alumni and “allied attorneys” introduce and sponsor similar legislation. North Carolina state Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R) sponsored a failed 2015 RFRA in her state after having proudly boasted of her continued “involvement in promoting religious freedom and other family values as an Allied Attorney" with ADF on her now-defunct campaign website. Similarly, in Louisiana, House Rep. Mike Johnson (R), who previously worked as an attorney for ADF, sponsored another anti-LGBTQ RFRA in 2015.
ADF’s involvement in drafting and promoting state RFRAs should not come as a surprise, as the organization's president, Michael Farris, co-chaired a committee that lobbied Congress to pass a federal RFRA in 1993. More recently, ADF consulted Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his sweeping religious freedom guidance, released October 6, which makes “it easier for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people and women” and “legal for nearly any business to fire someone or deny a person services based on religious objections.”