The Mississippi House of Representatives could vote as early as Friday on a measure that would allow businesses to refuse service to customers based on religious beliefs, which opponents say could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
The measure, dubbed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is similar to a bill passed by the Arizona legislature last month. The Arizona bill became a national lightening rod as civil rights activists and business groups lobbied Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto the legislation, which she did last week.
But in Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is unlikely to come under the kind of sustained national pressure that descended on Brewer. Bryant’s office pushed for an amendment to the bill that would add the words “In God We Trust” to the state seal, and he has indicated he is likely to sign the measure.
The Mississippi Senate passed the bill in January. A state House committee referred it to the full House earlier this week. The House has until midnight on March 12 to act, though a vote has yet to be formally scheduled.
Backers of the Mississippi bill say it is different from the Arizona version in that it would allow anyone accused of discrimination to use their religious beliefs as a defense in subsequent litigation. The House committee amended some of the bill’s language to prohibit state and local government from placing substantial burdens on religious practices.
But opponents say their fundamental objections to the legislation remain, because the current version of the legislation would still allow discrimination against same-sex couples.
“We oppose any attempts to use religion to discriminate, as this bill could allow,” said Eunice Rho, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Religious freedom laws exist in 18 states, and until last month few legislators raised any objections to the measures.
The Mississippi Senate voted unanimously to pass the measure; no mention was made during the floor debate of possible discrimination against gays and lesbians. Several Arizona legislators who voted for that state’s version of the bill later reversed themselves and said they hadn’t realized what impact the bill might have. A similar version also passed the Nevada Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
But with religious freedom bills under the microscope, several other states have killed their versions of the legislation. Lawmakers in Maine defeated a religious freedom bill, while sponsors of similar legislation in Ohio and Idaho pulled their bills from consideration. The Georgia legislature missed a key deadline for action, meaning its bill is dead for this year.
A religious freedom bill could still come up in North Carolina, which doesn’t kick off its legislative session until May 14.