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Miss. lawmakers feel pressure over religion bill

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press Updated: March 8, 2014 at 9:46 am 0

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawmakers in conservative Mississippi find themselves in a tug-of-war over a religious-practices bill that some say is uncomfortably similar to one recently vetoed by Arizona's Republican governor.

A group that lobbies for the state's influential Southern Baptist Convention is urging lawmakers to pass the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Others say that Mississippi, with its history of racial oppression, should avoid any law that could lead to discrimination against gay people and other groups.

Similar religious-freedom bills were filed this year in several states, including Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee. A bill was withdrawn in Ohio, and similar measures stalled in Idaho and Kansas. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill after critics said it would hurt the state's image by allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people.

One version of the Mississippi bill passed the Senate and awaits House debate by next week. Trying to assuage fears about discrimination, a House committee removed portions similar to the Arizona measure — provisions that some attorneys said could give cover to private businesses that choose to discriminate. But critics say the Mississippi bill is still vaguely worded and subject to broad interpretation, and should be killed rather than tweaked.

In its current form, it says government cannot put a substantial burden on the practice of religion without a compelling reason. It says a person whose religious practice has been, or is likely to be, substantially burdened may cite that violation in either suing others or as a defense against a lawsuit.

"Why are they trying to enact this?" former state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz asked Friday. "No one's religious beliefs are being trampled upon in Mississippi. My goodness, we have more churches per capita than any state in the nation."

Jimmy Porter is executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention's lobbying group, Christian Action Commission. In an email this week, he urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying a law would allow a person of any faith to cite his or her religious beliefs as a defense in a lawsuit.

"The national media pundits, the ACLU, LGBT lobby, and others have declared this bill as discriminatory and hateful," Porter wrote. "That's not true; the bill is about religious freedom."

Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights lobbying group, opposes the bill, as does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Todd Allen, an openly gay ordained minister who serves at a Unitarian-Universalist church in the small Mississippi town of Ellisville, said Friday that the bill seems to clear the way for businesses to use their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays and lesbians. While same-sex marriage is illegal in Mississippi, Allen said he hopes to be able to marry a man someday, and he doesn't want to be tossed out of a restaurant, for example, for holding hands.

"What the provision is doing is saying the restaurant owner can delegitimize my Christian marriage because of his own interpretation of Christianity," said Allen, vice president of the Jackson area group Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays.

Mississippi has long been burdened by poverty, health problems and struggling schools. Some lawmakers are disgusted to be spending time and energy on legislation they see as divisive and pointless.

Rep. Kevin Horan, a Democrat from Grenada, said his biggest concern is attracting businesses to Mississippi. He said he worries that the specter of discrimination could hurt those efforts.

"I haven't had a report of anything that would justify the need for this legislation," Horan said.

Rep. Brian Aldridge is a Republican from Tupelo, hometown of American Family Association, a conservative religious group that opposes same-sex marriage. Aldridge said he's hearing from constituents who support the bill because "they just want to make sure that they limit themselves against any kind of lawsuit."

When the bill was debated and passed the Mississippi Senate, nothing was said about its similarities to the Arizona legislation. Rather, the debate focused entirely on an amendment to fulfill Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's request to add "In God We Trust" to the state seal.

Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at the private Mississippi College School of Law, helped the House committee draft the changes. He said that after the Arizona-like portions were removed, the Mississippi bill is similar to religious protection laws previously enacted by about 18 states. The bill says government could not put a substantial burden on religious practice. Steffey said, for example, that if a state employee wants to use a regularly scheduled daily work break to say prayers, the employee's manager could not prohibit that practice without a compelling reason.

"I don't see how this amended act serves to facilitate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," Steffey said.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Diaz said the bill is still open to broad interpretation. The former Supreme Court justice said that even if the amended version becomes law, it would allow people to cite religious beliefs to deny services to gay people or others with whom they disagree. He compared people's arguments for the religious restoration bill to Jim Crow-era arguments that used religion to justify discrimination and racial separation.

"I think that this bill goes too far in that it gives individuals and the government an opportunity to allow their religious beliefs to impact the general public," Diaz said. "It's like the old analogy: Your right to throw a punch ends where my nose begins."

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