Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday signed into a law a religious freedom measure that is very clearly written to allow some businesses to deny services to LGBTQ people.
But there's a twist: The state is already so lacking in LGBTQ legal protections that this new law isn't needed to allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Here are some of the major provisions regarding discrimination in the legislation:
- It allows religious organizations and religious nonprofits to deny people services they religiously object to. This could allow a religious adoption agency to, for instance, deny services to a same-sex couple without risking government interference.
- It allows state employees to recuse themselves from giving a marriage license to a same-sex couple or solemnizing a same-sex marriage, so long as it does not delay a couple's ability to marry. So if, for example, a clerk recuses herself, the government would need to find a way to marry same-sex couples as quickly as it normally would, but it would try to do so in a way that won't involve a religious objector like the clerk.
- It lets closely held businesses, such as small shops or bakeries, refuse services tied to a same-sex wedding, such as photography, baking a cake, making a dress, jewelry sales, and even car rentals.
- It lets businesses stop transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
It sounds really bad. Many people may wonder why a business or government-funded agency should be able to reject a same-sex marriage if it's, as the US Supreme Court decided in 2015, a constitutionally guaranteed right.
But here's the thing: Anti-LGBTQ discrimination is already legal in Mississippi, because the state lacks any legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations (shops, restaurants, and other places that serve the public). This means that it is already 100 percent legal for a Mississippi business to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
In fact, it is so legal to do this in Mississippi that a business doesn't even need to cite religious objections to deny services to LGBTQ people. A florist or photographer can quite literally put up a "no gay people allowed" sign and it's totally legal. A baker can run out every transgender customer from his store and it's, again, totally legal.
What's more, this is true across the state. Unlike Indiana or Georgia, where the worry was that religious freedom measures could be used by businesses to bypass local laws that ban discrimination (like Indianapolis's or Atlanta's), no places in Mississippi have such local protections. That's right: According to the Movement Advancement Project, zero cities and counties in Mississippi protect LGBTQ people.
If a city or county does at some point enact a nondiscrimination statute, the law could then be used by businesses and agencies to bypass those local measures. It's only then that the pro-discrimination portions of the new state law would have some actual weight.
So what does the law actually do?
For one, the law prohibits the state from taking action against people who adopt a child or take in a foster child and raise the children in a way that stops them from expressing their true sexual orientation or gender identity. So foster or adoptive parents would be protected as they essentially abuse children by, for instance, refusing to let them get transition-related health care that's medically necessary or force them to go through dangerous, medically rejected conversion therapy. This could, then, enable anti-LGBTQ child abuse.
The law also extends beyond LGBTQ issues — by enacting protections for people's religious beliefs over sex outside marriage. So, for instance, school counselors could potentially cite religious objections to refuse to meet with unmarried students on birth control without facing legal or employment repercussions.
Important to understand, this doesn't just stop anti-discrimination claims. It is a defense in any legal action, including torts & contract— Joshua Block (@JoshACLU) March 31, 2016
Some critics have argued that the law would also let an employer fire a woman for wearing pants or not meeting other gender norms an employer believes in, but that is illegal under federal law even if Mississippi doesn't ban it.
But on the LGBTQ discrimination front, the law by and large doubles down on allowing a type of bigotry that's already legal in Mississippi and most of the US, exposing a broader problem with how the state treats its LGBTQ residents.