Ron Matis flew home to Mississippi from Washington the day after the U.S. Supreme Court legally recognized same-sex marriage with one goal in mind: getting a bill to the Mississippi Legislature by the 2016 session that would protect pastors and other Mississippians.
As political director for the United Pentecostal Church of Mississippi, Matis is one of the prominent religious officials in the state who regularly lobby for the denomination in the Mississippi State Capitol. He had been in Washington June 26, 2015, when the high court handed down its decision.
In the months following his return to Mississippi, he called a series of meetings with Pentecostal pastors who worried the decision could land them in legal trouble. He collected polling data and compiled a list of lawmakers who might be interested in a bill. Then he began lobbying.
“We didn’t really have to sell anybody on the need to protect people of faith,” Matis said. “Our governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker all know that Mississippians have strong religious beliefs, and they’re all willing to stand up for them.”
Matis was among many people in Mississippi who thought state legislation addressing the ruling should be discussed in 2016. But as it turned out, an out-of-state religious group made the first move.
House Bill 1523 was drafted by attorneys and policymakers at Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a coalition of Christian organizations including Tupelo-based American Family Association and Colorado-based Focus on the Family, among others.
It is not uncommon for national groups such as professional associations, think tanks and legal experts that focus on particular issues to draft model legislation for Mississippi lawmakers. If they are familiar with what has worked in other states, it makes sense to ask those organizations for the most effective provisions that will accomplish the purpose of the legislator’s bill with the fewest legal pitfalls, Matis said.
On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom says it operates with the goal of “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding and litigation.” The group’s role in drafting the Mississippi bill was learned through a series of interviews with Mississippi politicians and strategists who worked with ADF.
Representatives of the alliance did not return numerous requests to discuss the drafting process with Mississippi Today. The group sent the following statement to Mississippi Today shortly after Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill into law April 5: “Alliance Defending Freedom has been asked to advise many state legislators, including in Mississippi, on the constitutionality of religious liberty, government discrimination and privacy legislation as they work to affirm and uphold citizens’ fundamental freedoms.”
Reaction is decisive
National attorneys and analysts consider Mississippi’s bill the most sweeping response to the 2015 Supreme Court decision in the country. It allows circuit clerks to refuse distributing marriage certificates based on religious merit, granted they have another staffer in the office who can fulfill the federal law. It keeps religious organizations and religious foster care organizations from being punished if they do not serve same-sex couples.
It protects doctor and other health care providers who refuse to administer “treatments, counseling or surgeries related to sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning or declines to participate in the provision of psychological, counseling or fertility services.”
Similar to North Carolina’s controversial law, it allows businesses to decide whether to offer gender neutral bathrooms, locker rooms “or other intimate settings or facilities.” It states “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” And it identifies gender: “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
Bill gains momentum
Before the bill painted front-page headlines across the country, it passed through the hands of many individuals and groups in Mississippi before it landed on the House committee table in February.
The American Family Association, a nonprofit which often promotes its fundamentalist Christian values in the drafting of legislation, helped shape some of the provisions of the bill and offered legal counsel, AFA president Tim Wildmon said. Wildmon’s father, Donald Wildmon, who founded the American Family Association, also helped create the Alliance Defending Freedom in 1994.
A Jackson-based conservative think tank, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, served as a liaison with the key national group that drafted much of the bill. While MCPP did not have any role in creating the bill itself, center director Forest Thigpen said the group presented the initial draft to House Speaker Philip Gunn, the principal author listed on the bill.
The Mississippi Center was approached by lawmakers after the bill was introduced to the legislature and relayed specific questions to the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of legislators, Thigpen said. MCPP in turn relayed the alliance’s answers to those lawmakers.
And the United Pentecostal Church of Mississippi, under Matis’ guidance, helped lobby for the legislation. Matis said the UPC did not assist in the drafting of the bill, though he said it was possible he was on a conference call with Alliance Defending Freedom officials before the bill was introduced. Individuals affiliated with UPC made calls to lawmakers and citizens over a period of months before the 2016 legislative session, he said, providing “grassroots support on things.”
State takes the lead
In Mississippi, a mainstay atop the Pew Research Center’s list of most religious states in the country, religious liberties often are brought to the forefront of legislative sessions. In 2014, before same-sex marriage was legalized by a federal court in Mississippi and the 2015 Supreme Court decision, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill that was later signed into law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” That law also aimed to protect people who opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds of their religious convictions.
However, the 2016 bill was in direct response to the 2015 Supreme Court decision, multiple officials involved in the drafting process said.
“After the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell (v. Hodges), it became apparent that there would be a head-on collision between religious convictions about gay marriage and the right to gay marriage created by the decision,” Gunn said in a statement to Mississippi Today.
After the bill was drafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, it was presented to the speaker by “another House member,” said Meg Annison, Gunn’s spokeswoman.
Prominent Republican leaders besides Gunn helped craft the legislation as well. Seven state representatives were co-authors listed on the bill, including Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who introduced numerous headline-grabbing bills this session.
Freshman Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, who discussed House Bill 1523 on the Senate floor on March 30, introduced her own similar bill, albeit much shorter and less specific than the House version that ultimately passed. That bill died in committee early in the session. Branning, who is Pentecostal herself, met numerous times with Matis and other Pentecostal ministers about the legislation.
After speaking at the Mississippi Pentecostal camp meeting in Raymond in July 2015, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was kept updated about potential legislation. Matis said he met with Reeves’ staff “numerous times” between the summer of 2015 and the start of the legislative session in January 2016 specifically regarding the legislation.
“(Reeves) let us know he would do everything he could to protect our pastors and make sure they knew Mississippi would always be a safe place to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Matis said. “(Both Reeves and Gunn) gave us their word that they’d protect us, and they both came through on their word. Every conversation we had with them was one of commitment. … I never got the sense they felt pressured to do anything.”
Generic bill, specific action
Thigpen said the bill was not drafted specifically for Mississippi; instead, it was drafted as a generic bill that could be tailored and used by individual states.
Initial drafts of the bill that were introduced in the House committee had errors bearing that out. One early draft included the term “Commonwealth of …” in one section. Another section, which made it all the way to the governor’s copy which he signed April 5, lists magistrates as state officials. Mississippi is not a commonwealth and does not have magistrates.
“There was a desire on the part of a number of people to clarify what the law is in Mississippi,” Thigpen said. “In response to (the Supreme Court decision), a number of national organizations got together, in I assume some series of meetings, and developed a model bill that they thought would address the issues that people would have concerns about and clarify what the law is at the state level.”
Though the bill was largely written out of state, the intent and principles of the bill were shared by many Mississippians. The Mississippi Center for Public Policy heard from Mississippi pastors and judges following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 about what they could or could not do within the realm of the law, Thigpen said. He also said he knew that Gunn’s office heard from the same subset of people and even circuit clerks in the state.
Other Republican lawmakers – in interviews for this article, on the chamber floor and in other media reports – said they heard concerns from many of their constituents about the high court’s decision.
For those involved in the drafting process, the hard work paid off. By the time Bryant signed the bill on April 5, the bill’s creators were already celebrating a victory. In blog posts and press releases, the Alliance Defending Freedom commended Gunn, Reeves and other lawmakers in the days leading up to the governor’s signature.
When the Mississippi Senate passed the House bill late in the evening on March 30 – one of the final steps before the bill would become law – Matis and a group of Pentecostal ministers, who had earlier been introduced on the Senate floor, watched from the chamber gallery.
“This was a real grassroots effort, and it was mostly inside Mississippi,” Matis said. “This is something Mississippians supported. This is a really good example of what can happen when Mississippians and people of faith get involved at a local level.”