Biloxi, Greenwood may take stand against “religious freedom” law

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Biloxi and Greenwood city councils will vote Tuesday on resolutions opposing the state’s newly adopted “religious freedom” law. Since Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523 two weeks ago, city councils in Jackson and Natchez already have passed resolutions opposing the legislation.

Supporters say the new state law, which goes into effect July 1, protects the freedom of anyone whose religious convictions prohibit them from providing business or legal services to same-sex couples who wish to get married. The law recognizes marriage as the union of one man and one woman. It also says gender is determined at birth. Opponents argue the law discriminates against gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

“H.B. 1523 in effect broadly allows for State-sanctioned discrimination against certain sexual orientations or transgender individuals or groups as long as the discriminatory acts are based on undefined sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions,” states the Greenwood resolution.

Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams said she expects the city council to vote unanimously in favor of the resolution.

Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams

Carolyn McAdams

“I think the inspiration came from just pure doing what is right, standing up for what is right,” McAdams said. “I can’t help what the governor and the legislature have done, but the city of Greenwood, the city council here, we’re in complete unity on this, all seven members.”

Biloxi’s resolution uses language similar to Greenwood’s, and both state each city’s commitment to inclusion and diversity. But Biloxi’s resolution goes a step further by asking the state legislature to repeal House Bill 1523.

This move has made some members of Biloxi’s city council uncomfortable because the legislature decides how to divide the next $150 million installment of the BP oil spill settlement, which arrives in the next 60 days.

Robert L. Deming III

Robert L. Deming III

“Here in Biloxi, we are going to be looking to Jackson and to the government there to fund the projects we have here on the coast,” said Biloxi city council president Robert L. Deming III (R-Ward 4). “We are going to be requesting a lion’s share of the BP settlement money, and some of the council members wonder if it is prudent to drive a wedge between the coast and Jackson.

“My mom told me to pick your battles wisely, and I’m not sure this is one we’re going to be picking.”

But Biloxi council member Felix Gines (D-Ward 2) said that passing this resolution is not about money for the state.

Felix Gines

Felix Gines

“That should make no difference. Right is right and wrong is wrong,” Gines said. “If the legislature wants to hold up money for an illegal bill – because that’s what the bill is – if they want to do us wrong, it’s going to come back and get them sooner or later. You’re supposed to do what’s right whether it helps you or hurts you.”

But Deming said that for himself and for other city council members who may oppose the resolution, what is right is protecting Biloxi.

“I just think it’s imprudent at this moment, when we should be looking at the best interests of Biloxi as a whole, while these social issues are important to many people, we have other important issues we need to take heed of,” Deming said. “Looking at the people we are essentially going to condemn with this resolution and then running around and asking them to give us the lion’s share of the funding, what’s the adage? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar?”

Although Biloxi’s resolution would ask the legislature to consider repealing the state law, it doesn’t actually have any effect on state or local law. But for some opponents of the controversial legislation, these resolutions can be effective in other ways.

“Well, some people say these are non-binding resolutions, that they don’t have the teeth that a codified law would, but I always say these resolutions say to the business community, to the people who may be locating there, that their town is welcome, open for business,” said Rob Hill, director of the Human Rights Campaign for Mississippi. “And I worry about the psychological impact of 1523 with young people who might already be struggling with sexual identity or gender identity, so these resolutions and any kind of statement in opposition to this horrendous legislation is welcome.”

According to Gines, the negative national press that erupted when Gov. Bryant signed the legislation on April 5 has had an enormous impact in Biloxi and other Mississippi coastal cities, where tourism is a $1.6 billion industry. The mayors of Biloxi and Gulfport have each publicly released letters opposing the law.

“Well, I’m hoping it helps us. We’re in the tourism business down here,” Gines said. “I know a council member or two doesn’t want us to vote on it, but our mayor has already spoken out against it. It’s like the civil rights movement. If the whites had avoided sitting in on the lunch counter, where would that be?

“It’s time for us to sit in on the counter.”

Mayor Butch Brown

Mayor Butch Brown

Butch Brown, the mayor of Natchez, acknowledged that his city’s resolution cannot trump state law, so business people in Natchez would still have the legal right to refuse service on religious grounds. But he said the resolution was still a necessary, if symbolic, means for the city to set itself apart from the state.

“We’re proud of what we did. As a city we said the community around us doesn’t adhere to the legislation that passed. We are definitely a very open community and are very pleased with the direction we’re going,” Brown said. “I would never say that laws don’t apply to us. We as a community feel like we’re a diverse and open and understanding community, and we’ll continue to live that way, regardless.”