The SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission published an article April 1 titled “Will Mississippi Lead the Way?” The article, co-authored by ERLC research assistant Josh Wester and director of policy studies Andrew Walker, urged Gov. Phil Bryant to sign the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” passed last week in the state legislature.
The bill, introduced by House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Baptist layman who serves on the board of trustees at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, would allow business and government workers to deny services based on religious beliefs. Americans United for Separation of Church and State labeled it “dangerous” and some legal scholars say it is unconstitutional.
The ERLC article called HB 1523 “an exemplary model for public policy.”
“While state governments in New Mexico, Oregon and Colorado have recently weakened religious liberty in these states, the Mississippi legislature has courageously acted to preserve rights of conscience for all Mississippians,” Wester and Walker wrote. “This bill strikes an important balance that recognizes the new realities created by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision — legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide — while offering reasonable accommodations for citizens whose sincerely held moral and religious beliefs remain opposed to such practices.”
Citing a section of the bill which guarantees that the state will not take any action to penalize businesses and organizations who grant access to restrooms and changing facilities based on biological sex, they said, “This is exactly the sort of legislation that has been desperately needed.”
“Though some will undoubtedly decry or castigate HB 1523 as discriminatory, it is actually the case that opposition to this bill is its own form of discrimination,” the article said. “The opposition to this bill is a clear demonstration that some LGBT activists and corporate interests are not interested in advancing the causes of liberty, tolerance or plurality, but are instead committed to silencing the voice of religious citizens.”
The governor has not said whether he will sign the measure, but he signed legislation backed by gay marriage opponents in 2014.
Groups including the Human Rights Campaign, ACLU of Mississippi, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood Southeast plan to gather tonight outside the governor’s mansion for a rally against HB 1523.
A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastor who signed an open letter two years ago opposing a previous “religious liberty” bill said he plans to attend the rally.
“I’m proud to be a part of a state that celebrates its gifts of hospitality,” said Rusty Edwards, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. “Unfortunately, HB 1523 exposes just how far our practices and our hearts really are from the hospitality we idealize.”
“A hospitality rooted in the love of Jesus cannot tolerate the exclusion of one group of citizens from full participation in the public sector, especially within the halls of our government,” said Edwards, a past moderator of CBF of Mississippi.