Crowd chants “no hate in our state”

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AP Photo by Jeff Amy

Approximately 300 people march in front of the Governor's Mansion protesting the Mississippi law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples and transgender people.

As protesters began to gather outside the Capitol on Sunday afternoon, the clouds parted and the rain that had been pooling in streets all morning stopped. By the time the three- block march to the Governor’s Mansion began, approximately 300 people had joined, many waving rainbow flags or carrying posters proclaiming #RepealHB1523.

The ralliers filled all four lanes of Capitol Street as they swarmed the gates of the Governor’s Mansion, chanting “no hate in our state” to protest the “religious freedom” bill that Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law last month.

Supporters of the bill say it gives business owners the right to refuse service to gay couples if doing so threatens their religious beliefs, but opponents argue it endorses discrimination of gays, lesbians and transgender Mississippians.

Ten of those opponents took to a small stage outside the gates, several of them expressing frustration that the governor and legislature had made no moves to rescind a law that they argue hurts the state of Mississippi as much as it hurts its gay residents.

“They’ve done nothing to undo the harm they’ve done to this great state,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Griffin likened the “religious freedom” bill to the legacy of Jim Crow legislation that has hung over the state for decades and compared the current lawmakers to the now disgraced Mississippi politicians who promoted segregation.

“We know history will remember Phil Bryant the same way if he doesn’t stand up and do the right thing,” Griffin said.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think this bill, it’s embarrassing. I’m not gay, but I’m here because I’m tired of friends not from Mississippi making fun of our state,” said Jenna Corwin, who was attending the rally with her boyfriend.

Iraq War veteran Justin Kelly explains his opposition to the "religious freedom" act to the crowd outside the Governor's Mansion.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Iraq War veteran Justin Kelly explains his opposition to the “religious freedom” act to the crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion.

Other speakers onstage included veterans, members of the clergy and several representatives from social justice organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fewer than half of these speakers were members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, and Griffin emphasized the “unprecedented coalition” of these groups that have come together in opposition to this law.

“We are not members of the gay community only. We are whole people living whole lives, and we have to stand together, united,” said Felicia Brown, regional director of public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast. “These jokers are going to continue to win and we cannot let that happen.”

Under the shadow of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Susan Hrostowski, an Episcopal minister, argued that this bill isn’t actually about religion.

“This issue is a diversion. We didn’t already have the rights to keep our jobs here or have a cake baked,” Hrostowski said, referring to the fact that Mississippi doesn’t offer job protection or housing protection on the basis of sexuality.

Although the rally’s emphasis was on convincing the governor to repeal the law, with Griffin exhorting the crowd to “shout loud enough so he can hear you,” Jody Owen of the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on a long-term approach. As he spoke, volunteers passed around flyers with his organization’s contact information, and he reminded the protesters to call the number if any of them are affected by the law.

“We promised you if he signed this bill we’re gonna take this fight to the courthouse, and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Owen said.