A bill that would allow circuit court clerks and business owners to refuse service to same-sex married couples based on religious beliefs was sent to the House by the Mississippi Senate on Thursday.

The bill, which passed 31-17 on Wednesday evening,  “protects religious liberties” of those who would usually assist with same-sex weddings, such as photographers, pastors and wedding-related businesses. The Senate declined to reconsider its vote Thursday morning.

Notably, the law also would allow Mississippi circuit court clerks to refrain from issuing same-sex marriage licenses if the action contradicts their religious beliefs. Within the bill’s language, circuit clerks would be required to make alternate arrangements for licenses to be distributed and document their recusal of services with the county registrar.

“What the bill does is prevent this business owner from being discriminated against by the government in terms of fees or fines,” said Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia. “It is about protecting the religious freedom of people who feel they cannot assist people who wish to get married. I think it’s great for our state.”

A minor amendment was passed on the bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives last month, meaning it must go back to that chamber for concurrence. If the House concurs the legislation, it will then go to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant for signature into law.

The majority of the two-hour debate focused on the constitutionality of the bill and whether the bill itself was discriminatory. At least a dozen senators questioned Branning about discrimination against same-sex couples.

Sen. Willlie Simmons, D-Cleveland, called the bill discriminatory, citing his time serving in the Vietnam War and returning to Mississippi to a segregated South. Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, suggested the bill would create problems in the future, such as court battles and public perception issues.

“I wonder, where does this all end?” Horhn said. “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves, Mississippi? Why does the rest of the world think so badly of us? It’s because we do things that don’t make good sense and aren’t properly thought out. This is one of them.”

During the debate, which began at 5:45 p.m. and ended at 7:55 p.m., senators were generally engaged in the conversation, no matter who was speaking. Branning, a freshman senator serving her first full session, was prepared to answer questions citing previous federal and state court cases.

Three amendments were offered, including one from Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, which would force businesses and churches who take advantage of the proposed law to place visible signage indicating such intentions. All were defeated on voice vote.

After the bill was passed Wednesday night, senators greeted each other and discussed the debate while others met with lobbyists outside the chamber.

“Some senators said it best during debate: This legislation sets Mississippi back,” said Rob Hill, director of Mississippi Human Rights Campaign. “Mississippi continues to enshrine discrimination into law, and it shows that Mississippi is not open for business.”

“Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer, many Mississippi business owners have been at a crossroads,” Branning said. “This bill provides a solution to those crossroads.”

HB 1523 at a glance:

Protects individuals who don’t want to serve same-sex couples based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Keeps religious organizations and religious foster care organizations from being punished if they do not serve same-sex couples.

Protects a doctor and other health care provider who refuses to administer “treatments, counseling, or surgeries related to sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning or declines to participate in the provision of psychological, counseling, or fertility services.”

Allows businesses to decide whether to offer gender neutral bathrooms, locker rooms, “or other intimate settings or facilities.”

Defines marriage: “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

Defines gender: “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

One reply on “Senate backs religious freedom bill”

  1. All this will accomplish is that it will make our State look even more backwards and drive away future business and tourism. What is scarier is that it could open the door to other even more harmful forms of discrimination…makes me sad and angry.

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