Just four hours before a midnight deadline to pass general House bills on March 30, senators sat attentively at their desks listening to the debate on a bill they knew had extraordinary implications: House Bill 1523.
The bill, which was ultimately signed into law in April and struck down in two separate rulings by a federal court judge this week, had been the subject of scrutiny from LGBT advocates and others.
During periods of debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers routinely wander from their desks, speaking with their neighbors or playing on their phones and computers. The mood is typically jovial and upbeat. But on the night of March 30, desk seats were full, tones were hushed and the mood was somber.
Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, defended the bill on the floor. Many of her Democratic counterparts pressed her with questions. Branning, a freshman senator and attorney who serves on the committee that considered the bill, defended the constitutionality of the bill.
“(HB 1523) doesn’t violate first amendment freedom of speech, and there’s no denominational clause,” Branning said on the floor that night. “There’s no violation of the Establishment Clause. There’s no violation of Equal Protection Clause. All the way around, this bill is wholly constitutional.”
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled late Thursday night the law does violate the Establishment Clause (part of the First Amendment) and the Equal Protection Clause. As a result, the state’s denominational argument – what Reeves called the “we-prefer-some-members-of-all-religions argument” – is null. Earlier in the week, Reeves invalidated the section of the law that allows circuit clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
When the bill was being considered in both the Senate and the House, lawmakers generally voted along party lines on the bill: Republicans voted in favor of the bill and Democrats voted against.
But during the past week, as Reeves released his decisions, a number of lawmakers who had voted for the bill expressed their misgivings about the law all along.
“I wasn’t passionate about it. I wasn’t passionate at all,” President Pro-Tempore Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said on Friday. “I just voted for it. I didn’t get up and speak on it. I do think it represents the thinking of the majority of the people in my district … I just wish that the language was more clear and it were a cleaner bill.”
Back on March 30, the bill appeared doomed when the Senate Judiciary A Committee failed to take action to send the bill for a vote to the Senate floor on what was the deadline day for such action. But in a second committee meeting called later in the afternoon by Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, that bill alone was considered and sent on its way for a Senate vote.
Tindell, who voted for the bill, said Friday that he thinks state lawmakers should shift their focus “to issues that will make Mississippi a better place.”
“I can appreciate 100 percent trying to protect religious freedoms, and I appreciate both the intent of the bill and the concern regarding the bill from others,” Tindell said. “From a legislative perspective, I think it’s time that we get back to focusing on the economy and improving the quality of life in our state and focusing less on some of these other issues that we’ve tackled.”
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said this week that while he voted for the bill because a “significant portion” of his constituents supported it, “we need to do a better job of understanding outcomes” of legislation like House Bill 1523.
Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said this week that most of the response he’s received from constituents about the 2016 session concerns the bill. The majority of the response has been positive, he said, but some have asked why the state needed such a law.
“And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have an answer,” Smith said.
Still, many supporters of the bill stood their ground even after the federal decisions this week.
“I believe the judge made a mistake,” Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie and co-sponsor of bill, said Friday. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with the law. The law, to me, just protected Christian rights … You win some, you lose some. We’ll go on and believe the way we do.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn, the bill’s main sponsor, again defended the bill on Tuesday during this week’s special legislative session.
“The intent is to protect religious freedom and it does nothing to compromise the rights of anyone else,” Gunn said. “The gay and lesbian community can do anything now that they could do before. I think it’s very telling that the other lawsuit, the ACLU lawsuit that (Reeves) dismissed, I think he actually said there’s been no harm to anyone here … So I think that is representative of the entire bill. There’s no harm to anyone.”
While lawmakers generally voted for the bill along party lines, there were exceptions.
In the final House vote on April 1 to send the bill to the governor’s desk for signature, four Republicans – Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo; Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi; Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg; and Rep. Rob Roberson, R-Starkville – voted against the bill.
One House Democrat, Rep. Carl Mickens, D-Brooksville, voted for the bill. Mickens said this week he would vote against the bill if it was presented again.
“I don’t think we necessarily need this bill,” Mickens said this week. “Because it’s not going to serve us any purpose for the growth of our state or bringing us close together in this state. And the way things are going, it seems like this bill is going to hurt our state.”
In the Senate on March 30, two Democrats – Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, and Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont – voted for the bill. Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, did not vote.
Jolly said this week that he voted for the bill because he felt the people in his district supported it. When asked if he would vote for the bill today, he said he would need to “talk to people in my district and see what they feel about it.”
“If everybody (in the Senate) had a ballot and no one knew how they voted, the whole thing might be different,” Jolly said.
Rep. Roun McNeil, R-Leakesville, voted for the bill in the House when it was first introduced Feb. 19, but he voted present on the final vote on April 1. He said he decided not to vote one way or the other in part because he knew lawsuits would be filed against the bill.
“I understand why people are uncomfortable and wanted to put out these protections (in House Bill 1523),” McNeil said. “But I think 1523 is not a great way to go about it … I became convinced that these lawsuits that have come about would be costly and would give the federal judiciary probably more say in what religious liberty looks like in Mississippi than our Constitution and our Legislature.”
On Friday, Republican leadership, including Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, expressed their desire for the state to appeal Reeves’ decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Gunn expressed disappointment with the federal decision, though he did not comment on a potential appeal.
Concluded Burton: “I just wish that it had accomplished what we wanted to accomplish with religious freedoms without some of the other ancillary things getting in the way,” Burton said.
Mississippi Today reporter Kate Royals contributed to this report.