Civil liberty groups in Mississippi are considering legal action against the state if it allows circuit court clerks and business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples based on religious beliefs.
The Mississippi Senate approved a bill with those provision Wednesday night. A bill with minimal differences was passed by the House in February. If a conference committee resolves those differences, the bill will go to Gov. Bryant for his signature.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi is working with other groups to form a coalition to oppose such a law.
“We’re definitely looking at (a lawsuit),” said Erik Fleming, director of advocacy and policy for ACLU Mississippi. “We’re looking at how many people to add to the coalition. But it’s definitely on the table if we can’t kill the bill first.”
Freshman Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, discussed the bill on the floor Wednesday night, answering pressing questions from Democratic senators who opposed the bill. Branning said the bill is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that upheld same-sex marriage.
Branning told Mississippi Today Thursday morning that she has received mixed reactions since passage of the bill. In her district, she said, her constituents are proud of her efforts “to protect their religious liberties.” Some of the reactions Branning has received, however, were negative enough to force her to delete her Facebook account Thursday morning.
“I’m certainly willing to have an adult conversation with anyone who calls my office number, emails me or even visits me here at the capitol,” Branning said Thursday morning. “The reason I deleted my Facebook page is because a lot of the negative comments, mostly from people outside of Mississippi, were directed at my children. I can’t allow my children to be brought into this.”
The bill has drawn national attention. Legal analysts appeared on network news programs Thursday morning offering their takes on the constitutionality of the law. New York Daily News writer Sean King, who often publishes articles on race-related topics, urged Mississippi business owners to “voice their outrage” about the bill.
TV personality Montel Williams called the bill’s nature “the Ross Barnett school of Christianity.” On Twitter, Williams said the bill could affect black Mississippians as well as the LGBT population.
Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, and the Civil and Human Rights Coalition, released statements criticizing the bill.
“We urge Gov. Bryant to do the right thing — reject discrimination and veto this harmful measure when it reaches his desk,” said HRC president Chad Griffin.
The Mississippi bill is similar to two legislative items passed in other states earlier this month. Last week, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill almost identical to Mississippi’s. On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill.
North Carolina faces a federal lawsuit after passing a law earlier this month that blocks businesses from complying with other laws that include anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and requires transgender people to use bathrooms that match their biological sex. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is under fire from national companies such as Google and Apple.
On Thursday, Nissan, which employs approximately 6,400 people at its Canton facility, provided a statement to Mississippi Today condemning the bill.
“Nissan is committed to providing our employees with an inclusive workplace environment that supports diversity,” the statement said. “It is Nissan’s policy to prohibit discrimination of any type, and we oppose any legislation that would allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”
During the debate Wednesday night, Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, and two other African-American senators likened the bill to laws that oppressed black Mississippians. “Can you see how someone from my background, as an African American, might think this bill is discriminatory?” Horhn said. “I’ve experienced discrimination, being an African American. Do you at least understand why this is offensive to me?”
But during debate Wednesday night and again in an interview Thursday morning, Branning adamantly supported the legislation, saying the bill simply defends businesses and religious organizations from discrimination by the government.
“People are under the misconception that this is a discriminatory bill,” Branning said Thursday morning. “Really, it doesn’t discriminate against anyone. It protects people in this state who feel they could be discriminated against themselves by the government.”