Playing politics with religious freedom: Mississippi and RFRA

The Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate passed on Tuesday religious freedom legislation that has prompted outrage from progressive news media and advocacy groups.

A column on the website Slate included perhaps the most provocative headline: “Mississippi passed its anti-gay segregation bill. Will it be struck down?”

The Huffington Post went with the headline: “Mississippi Governor to sign anti-gay bill into law” and The Guardian chose the slightly gentler “Mississippi religious freedom law could bar gay people from businesses.”

These reports all make the same points — that the bill is discriminatory, similar to legislation vetoed recently in Arizona, and would allow for Jim Crow-style discrimination against gays and lesbians. And they believe their accusations are true because culture warriors like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have hailed the legislation as a “victory for the First Amendment.”

“Gay people could be turned away by hotels, restaurants and pharmacies across Mississippi thanks to an expansive new religious freedom law approved by the state legislature,” wrote Jon Swaine in The Guardian.

These assessments are just plain wrong. To quote Matthew Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, the current outcry from the left is “much ado about nothing.”

The original version of the bill passed by Mississippi lawmakers was indeed problematic and misguided. The timing of the legislation was rightly criticized, coming on the heels of controversial religious freedom legislation in Kansas and Arizona. The introduction of a religious freedom bill in the Mississippi legislature certainly left the impression that conservative Christian business owners were attempting to skirt state and local civil rights laws.

Respected church-state experts criticized the original bill for its general language that would have allowed religious freedom claims to be made with regard to any commercial transaction, from the sale and rental of housing to home furnishings to restaurants. The language itself did present the real potential for such discrimination

Since the original bill included a specific provision protecting health care providers, opponents feared that Senate Bill 2681 would offer a religious liberty defense to a doctor or nurse who refused to treat a LGBT patient in violation of the state’s nondiscrimination statute.

Fortunately, the original version of Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2681 was not the version that passed. This is an incredibly important fact as the two versions are distinctly different from one another. Some progressive advocacy organizations and media outlets, however, have either downplayed these differences or outright ignored them.

The bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee and passed Tuesday by the Mississippi legislature was a literal mirror image of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the bipartisan landmark legislation adopted by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago.

RFRA was made necessary due to a horrible Supreme Court decision in 1990, which held that the government would no longer be required to demonstrate a compelling state interest to justify substantially burdening the free-exercise rights of its citizens.

The Smith decision sparked outrage across the nation and brought together organizations across the political spectrum, from the ACLU to the Traditional Values Coalition. This diverse coalition set out to restore that time-tested religious liberty standard and drafted legislation to prevent the government from substantially burdening a person’s religious freedom unless the burden furthered a compelling interest and was the least restrictive means of advancing that interest.

Here we are 20 years later.

The Mississippi legislature scrapped a bad bill and reached a compromise in conference. The compromise included, word-for-word, the language of the federal RFRA — a law once lauded by liberals and conservatives alike.

Instead of acknowledging that meaningful and significant compromise, some professional progressives continue to characterize the bill as something it is not. That’s unfortunate.

In a recent column here at ABP New/Herald Blog, I chided certain conservatives for their Chicken Little routine in the Hobby Lobby case. I noted that hyperbole had reigned supreme in that church-state conversation, which resembled more of a culture war shouting match. I emphasized that church-state issues are complex and we should be honest enough to at least nod to this truth.

And, in this case, progressives are the ones ratcheting up the red and blue shouting match. Christians who champion equality and religious freedom should be careful not to let culture war practitioners draw us into a new battle. Religious freedom should not be used as a wedge issue and it should not be treated as a political football.

RFRA is still needed to protect persons from government interference with their free exercise of religion. Two decades have passed and RFRA continues to help preserve that cornerstone Baptist concept of soul freedom. It aids in keeping the government from fettering our consciences. And, it allows courts to balance competing interests for the sake of justice and fairness on a case-by-case basis.

Let’s remember the bipartisan outburst that prompted RFRA, and let’s not be fooled by other outbursts that tell us RFRA is no longer needed, discriminatory or worse.

Aaron Weaver

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About the Author
Aaron Weaver is a recent graduate of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he received a Ph.D. in Religion, Politics & Society. He blogs at and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).

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  • Horseman Simmons

    I know those Mississippian Christians don’t want to look like hypocrites. So I’ll assume that they will promptly make divorces illegal and they will promptly close ALL casinos and make gambling illegal, right? Unconstitutional laws are not legal. This will flounder just like Kansas’ and Arizona’s attempt to force religious law. They’re in the wrong country to be trying to pull these shenanigans. The 1st Amendment trumps any commandment of any religion.

  • 1941641

    I can’t recall ever reading that Jesus said anything about homosexuality, but I do remember He spoke with disfavor about divorce. I’m wondering when the christian fundies are going to finally take up the Cross and put a stop once and for all to divorce in America! Stoning the guilty party or parties if that is what it takes!