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Mississippi governor signs law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay people

By Mark Berman

April 5, 2016 at 6:45 PM

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant in 2013. (Jeffrey MacMillan for The Washington Post)

Mississippi's governor on Tuesday signed into law a bill that allows businesses to refuse services to gay couples based on religious objections, ignoring opposition from businesses who had worried the legislation could cost the state economic opportunities in the future.

The new law states that it protects "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions," including the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that sexual relations should only occur in such a marriage. It also says that a person's gender is "determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth" and goes on to say that businesses can determine who is allowed to access bathrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.

Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said in a statement that he was signing the bill "to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions," arguing that the new legislation is meant to allow people to exercise their religious freedom.

"This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizens of this state under federal or state laws," he said. Bryant added: "The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived."

Related: [PayPal abandons plans to open facility in Charlotte because of LGBT law]

A host of groups had called on Bryant to veto the bill, arguing that the legislation allows for state-sanctioned discrimination. Lawmakers and others who supported the bill echoed Bryant in saying that the bill only protects the rights of people with religious beliefs.

"This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi and for the thousands of Mississippians who can now be turned away from businesses, refused marriage licenses, or denied housing, essential services and needed care based on who they are," Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said in a statement. "This bill flies in the face of the basic American principles of fairness, justice and equality and will not protect anyone's religious liberty."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that "Mississippi's abhorrent new law is going against the tide of progress in our country."

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Religious freedom proposals are being weighed in nearly a dozen states after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Before the bill was signed by the governor, the state's lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, said it was needed after the Supreme Court ruled last year that gay couples have a right to marriage.

"In the wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision, many Mississippians, including pastors, wanted protection to exercise their religious liberties," Reeves, a Republican, said in a statement last week. "This bill simply protects those individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs."

The "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" signed by Bryant on Tuesday protects people who refuse to provide goods, services or facilities for a gay wedding due to religious or moral objections.

The law also says that government employees who authorize or issue marriage licenses or perform marriages can recuse themselves due to their beliefs, so long as these licenses and marriages are "not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal."

Mississippi's new law is set to take effect on July 1.

Related: [Here’s what Mississippi’s new law is going to do]

Similar laws have been proposed or enacted in other states, leading to heated controversies — and, in several cases, an outcry from business groups that caused lawmakers to scuttle or change the bills.

The Human Rights Campaign said that it has tracked nearly 200 bills deemed to be against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in nearly three dozen states during state legislative sessions this year. The group said three of these bills had been signed into law: Mississippi's bill, legislation in North Carolina cited as the reason that state lost hundreds of potential jobs on Tuesday and a Kansas law, signed last month, letting religious groups restrict membership.

Missouri lawmakers had approved a religious freedom bill last month, not long after South Dakota's Republican governor vetoed a bill that would have required schoolchildren to use bathrooms matching their biological sex.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) last week vetoed a religious liberty bill there, a decision that came after the National Football League and Hollywood figures and production groups criticized the measure and suggested it could cost the state business. Bills have also been quashed after big business opposition in recent years in Arizona, Indiana and Arkansas.

Some business leaders and groups in Mississippi and beyond have spoken out against the bill there. The Mississippi Manufacturers Association said this week that the group "fears that future economic development opportunities will be jeopardized" by the law, saying that some of its member companies — including Nissan and Toyota — oppose the measure. IBM said it in a statement that the company was "disappointed" Bryant signed a bill that "will permit discrimination against people based on marriage status, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression."

In some other states where religious liberty bills were proposed, businesses and organizations had considerable cudgels to wield: Arizona was set to host a Super Bowl as well as a new Apple manufacturing plant. Indiana, home to the NCAA, was also where the organization was holding the men's basketball Final Four amid the uproar over that state's bill. Georgia, like North Carolina, faced threats from professional sports leagues hosting major events in their states.

Officials in North Carolina opted to enact their bill — barring local governments from giving gay and transgender people civil rights protections — despite the threats.

Not long before Bryant signed Mississippi's law on Tuesday, Paypal — the California-based online payments firm — announced that it would abandon plans to expand to North Carolina due to the law. PayPal had planned to open a facility in Charlotte that state officials said would bring 400 jobs and millions of dollars to the local economy there.

"Big business and Hollywood have engaged in economic blackmail in Mississippi just like they have in Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas to try to force government discrimination of those who support natural marriage," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement. "However, unlike Indiana and Georgia, leaders in Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas have chosen to defend the fundamental freedom of their citizens to believe and live according to those beliefs, rather than capitulate to the economic threats of big business and entertainment."

Perkins said Mississippi's law "gives fresh momentum to efforts on the federal and state level to stop government discrimination against people who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."

Bryant's decision on Tuesday was also praised by the Rev. Franklin Graham, a North Carolina evangelist and the son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced Tuesday that he signed an executive order banning non-essential state travel to Mississippi, mirroring a similar rule he and other elected officials announced for North Carolina.

In Washington, D.C. Council member David Grosso on Tuesday introduced a bill that would take the District's travel ban for North Carolina and turn it into law for any state passing similar legislation — including Mississippi. The news that Bryant signed the Mississippi law broke while Grosso was introducing his bill Tuesday, and he looked down at his phone and said his bill would apply there as well.

Federal agencies have said they are reviewing federal funding to North Carolina due to that state's law, while legislators have defended the bill in the face of what that state's governor called a "smear campaign."

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

Further reading:

Critics say the Mississippi bill is 'probably the worst religious freedom bill' yet

The trick in North Carolina's law

This story has been updated. First published: 1:17 p.m.


Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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