Friday, April 01, 2016

Mississippi Legislature Sends Governor Broad "Freedom of Conscience" Bill

The Mississippi Legislature today gave final passage to H.B. 1523 (full text) and (adopted amendment). Titled Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 32-17 House by a vote of 69-44.

The statute, one of the broadest to date enacted by states, protects three separate beliefs if held on religious or moral grounds: (1) marriage is a union of one man and one woman; (2) sexual relations should be reserved to heterosexual marriage; and (3) gender is an immutable characteristic determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.

The statute protects from any kind of adverse state action a religious organization that on one of these bases refuses to solemnize a marriage or refuses to provide services, accommodations, goods or facilities for a marriage.  It also allows religious organizations to use these beliefs in making employment decisions or decisions regarding the sale, rental or occupancy of housing facilities, or in providing adoption or foster care services.

The statute protects from adverse government action any adoptive or foster parents who guide or raise a child consistent with these beliefs.  It protects any person who refuses provide counseling or fertility services or treatment because of these beliefs (except for emergency medical treatment).

The statute goes on to protect anyone who refuses to provide specific kinds of wedding-related services because of these beliefs, including photography, wedding planning, printing, floral arrangements, dress making, hall or limousine rental or jewelry sales and services.  It also protects any person who imposes sex-specific policies based on these beliefs on students or employees or regarding access to rest rooms, locker rooms and showers.

The statute goes on to protect state employees who speak out on these issues in their private capacity or in the workplace to the extent other political, moral or religious beliefs can be expressed. It allows county clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licences consistent with these beliefs, and allows judges and others to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

According to CBS News, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant so far refuses to say whether or not he will sign the bill into law.