Gov. Bryant signs controversial religious freedom bill into law

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Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has signed into law House Bill 1523, which allows circuit court clerks and business owners to refuse service to same-sex married couples based on religious beliefs.

Bryant’s signature on Tuesday comes after weeks of debate in both the House of Representatives and Senate, a combination of citizen backlash and support, promises of a lawsuit from civil liberty groups and condemnation from major businesses and corporations.

The bill, which states it “protects religious liberties” of those who would usually assist with same-sex weddings, such as photographers, pastors and wedding-related businesses, garnered national attention as Bryant’s decision loomed. The law goes into effect July 1.

Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant

“This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws,” Bryant said in a statement Tuesday morning. “It does not attempt to challenge federal laws, even those which conflict with the Mississippi Constitution, as the legislature recognizes the prominence of federal law in such limited circumstances.”

As the bill sat on his desk awaiting signature, Bryant kept quiet about his decision, telling reporters he would “look at it like I do every piece of legislation.” His spokespeople also remained hushed about his decision, not returning multiple calls and emails from Mississippi Today and other outlets about the pending decision.

Bryant joined the J.T. Show on Supertalk radio just minutes after releasing the statement. He explained his reasoning for signing the law.

“(The perception of the law) is unfortunate,” Bryant said. “Believe me, this law protects everyone’s rights under the law, and that’s what I tried to do. I signed it to make sure that’s what we were doing – protecting the civil liberties of the faith based community while not discriminating against any other group. That’s the position we’re trying to land on.”

Countering majority support from lawmakers in both houses, there has been widespread criticism regarding the bill since the Senate passed it March 30.

Civil liberty groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi have said they will pursue legal action against the state now that the bill has passed.

Some legal scholars in Mississippi have called the potential lawsuit “easy to win.”

“This bill is incredibly unconstitutional,” said George Cochran, constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “I think lightning will strike if this (bill) is signed into law.”

Nearly a dozen Mississippi businesses have released statements opposing it. Among these are AT&T, IBM, Levi Strauss & Co., Mass Mutual, MGM Resorts, Apple Computers, Hyatt Hotels, Nissan, Toyota and Tyson Foods.

Multiple protests have occurred across Mississippi the past two weeks, including one attended by approximately 200 people on Monday outside the Governor’s Mansion, in which people gathered to urge Gov. Phil Bryant to veto the bill.

As tension has mounted regarding the governor’s pending action on the bill, lawmakers and other supporters in the state have remained steadfast in their decision to pass the bill.

Rep. Andy Gipson

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Andy Gipson

“This is a bill that really does not discriminate against anybody,” said Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton and co-sponsor of the bill. “Any same sex couple that wants to get married or whatever, they can do that. If you have a sincere religious objection to it, you can politely say, no I can’t do that without facing the fear of punishment by state government.”

The bill is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that upheld same-sex marriage, said Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia.

Branning discussed the bill on the Senate floor in late March. Backlash she received was so intense, she said, deleted her Facebook account. A practicing attorney herself, she has publicly defended the bill and says it is “absolutely constitutional.”

Before the bill was signed into law, the Mississippi Economic Council released a statement opposing the legislation: “As the State Chamber of Commerce for a state that has proven its hospitable and business-friendly approach, MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi business from implementing and enforcing non-discrimination policies or that would limit diversity and inclusion impacting their customers and employees.”

The Mississippi Manufacturers Association, concerned that the bill violates the diversity policies of many of its members and will harm Mississippi’s image, called for Gov. Bryant to veto the bill.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned nonessential state-funded travel to Mississippi after Gov. Bryant signed House Law 1523. Vermont also is banning official travel to Mississippi after passage of the law.

“The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived,” Bryant said in the statement.