New York’s Mississippi Picnic canceled as response to religious freedom law

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For the first time in 37 years, the annual Mississippi Picnic held in New York’s Central Park has been canceled. The move is one of several public responses against the state’s new religious freedom law, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed last week.

“As a result of the unfortunate adoption of House Bill 1523, we have been informed that several concerned groups in New York City intend to demonstrate in protest of the passage of this law. Due to the controversy, the protests and our own intensely felt dismay over HB 1523, we deeply regret that the Mississippi Picnic cannot go forward,” said a statement from the New York Mississippi Society, which hosts the event.

Each year, Mississippians and businesses from the state gather in Central Park to celebrate the state’s culture.

“Our mission back in 1980 was to showcase a positive image of the state of Mississippi in New York,” the Society’s statement said. This year’s event, a tribute to B.B. King, was scheduled for June 11.

Gov. Bryant, a regular at the picnic in previous years, released a statement expressing dismay that the Society had canceled the event.

“I am disappointed we won’t be celebrating Mississippi’s rich and diverse culture in Central Park this year. I am confident many New Yorkers feel the same way,” said Gov. Bryant in a statement. “I will be happy to participate in the event should organizers revive it in the future. ”

Outcry against the legislation, which supporters say protects religious freedom by giving them the right to refuse service to same-sex couples, has been swift and loud. Opponents argue it discriminates against gay, lesbians and transgender communities.

Several other public figures and officials have severed ties with the state in protest over the legislation. Singer Bryan Adams and writer Sherman Alexie each canceled appearances in Mississippi, citing opposition to the law. Governors in New York, Vermont and Washington have banned official state travel to Mississippi while the mayors of Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City have done the same. Last week, the Navy moved the commissioning ceremony for the U.S.S. Portland from Pascagoula to Portland, Ore., after that city’s mayor refused to travel to Mississippi for the event.

Still, the decision to cancel the picnic surprised even people involved with its planning.

“We are disappointed in not only their decision but also their lack of discussion with Mississippi partners before canceling the event,” said Jeff Rent, spokesperson for the Mississippi Development Authority, which sponsors the event.

“We actually had almost bought plane tickets. We were about to push the button on them,” said Mitchell McCamey, who owns Tupelo’s Neon Pig Restaurant, a sponsor of the event. “It’s kind of irritating to me that it got canceled. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.”

Alexis Brown, picnic coordinator for the New York Mississippi Society, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I wish they hadn’t,” said Chris Porter, a Vicksburg artist whose painting of B.B. King was being used on the picnic’s official T-shirt and poster this year. “I wish they had the guts to go face it. Let Gov. Bryant go celebrate Mississippi in New York City and see how that goes.”

Although this is the first year the Mississippi Picnic has been canceled, it has met with controversy before. In 2014, a gay, lesbian and transgender group organized a moment of silence in Central Park before that year’s picnic after the governor signed “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” into law. Opponents said this law also targeted the gay, lesbian and transgender communities for discrimination, while supporters argued that its final version simply upheld rights established by a federal law President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.

For Porter, an out lesbian with a partner and five-year-old child, this year’s legislation makes the decision to cancel the picnic necessary but no less heartbreaking.

“It has kept me from making the very thoughtful decision that I’ve had to weigh of participating or not participating, in protest or not in protest. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about all week,” Porter said. “This has been totally disheartening, completely disappointing that I would even have to consider and make that decision after this has been in the works for over a year.”

In addition to the Neon Pig, other Mississippi businesses scheduled to be involved in the picnic include Delta Magazine, McAlister’s Deli, Simmons Catfish, Sugaree’s Bakery and the Mississippi Tourism Association.

“I think that’s great for us to continue to have our presence in other parts of the country so they know, when they see what we have to bring, that we’re smart, not just beautiful,” Porter said. “And it benefits other people, that they get to meet us on their turf and realize they might want to come to Mississippi.”

Some participants argue that shutting down this year’s event costs Mississippi a much-needed opportunity to show off the state’s best attributes in an international city.

“Don’t cancel the cool kids,” McCamey said, referring to his restaurant and the other organizations who travel to New York to participate in the picnic. “We shed the best light on Mississippi. We’re all well-traveled, super open-minded and educated. This law doesn’t reflect everybody in Mississippi.”