You may have heard Mississippi's religious freedom law will now allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. This is, after all, what report after report in the media have suggested.
But what if I told you Mississippi's law doesn't actually allow anything new?
Now, the new law does technically allow discrimination against LGBTQ people: It lets bakery owners, for instance, cite religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples seeking to buy a wedding cake.
But even before the new law was passed, this type of anti-LGBTQ discrimination was entirely legal in the state, because neither Mississippi nor any municipality in the state included sexual orientation or gender identity in its nondiscrimination protections. So it was already legal for Mississippi businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, whether they cited religious beliefs or just said they don't like gay or transgender people.
Yet if you saw the media coverage about the new law, you may not have any idea that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is already legal. Take the Washington Post's headline: "Mississippi governor signs law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay people." Reading this, you'd be forgiven if you thought the new law gives businesses a brand new ability to discriminate. The article does nothing to clarify that this type of discrimination was already legal.
This kind of misleading coverage is made worse by the fact that Mississippi isn't alone. Not only was anti-LGBTQ discrimination legal in Mississippi before its new law, it's still legal in most states.
But Americans apparently aren't aware of this. Many, many polls have found that a majority of Americans think nondiscrimination protections are already in place for LGBTQ people.
The media enables this misinformation when it doesn't correct the record — when it doesn't point out that while a new law may allow discrimination, this discrimination was already allowed before the new law passed. And the widespread misinformation makes it harder for LGBTQ advocates to actually get this type of discrimination banned, since Americans aren't aware that discrimination is legal in the first place.
As Ian Thompson of the American Civil Liberties Union previously told me, "When people already think these protections are in place, it can be difficult to work up the motivation that's necessary to push for them."
It would be one thing if the poor media coverage happened just in Mississippi, but it's happened with each new uproar over states' anti-LGBTQ measures — in Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina. While these measures may have enabled more discrimination by overturning municipal nondiscrimination laws, the outcry generally missed that this type of discrimination was already legal in most places in these states before they considered or passed any of their anti-LGBTQ measures.
Now, there is some debate that federal law may already protect LGBTQ people in some settings, since it bans discrimination based on sex (which advocates argue covers sexual orientation and gender identity) in the workplace, housing, and schools. Courts still need to decide whether federal law really does cover LGBTQ people.
But even if courts ultimately rule in LGBTQ people's favor, federal law does not include a ban on sex discrimination in public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, and other places that serve the public). So it would still be legal for businesses in most states to deny services to LGBTQ people — even if some federal laws' reach was expanded to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Polls show most Americans think businesses shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But if the media doesn't tell Americans this is actually legal right now in most states, the public may never know this is a real problem in much of the country.