February 27, 2014 11:09:40 AM
JACKSON -- Several Mississippi lawmakers say they're confused about whether a freedom-of-religion bill is similar to a widely criticized Arizona measure that would allow people to assert religious beliefs in refusing business services to same-sex couples.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said Wednesday that he wants attorneys to study Senate Bill 2681, called the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act." It passed the Senate on Jan. 31 and awaits consideration in a House committee.
"I haven't carefully read it, and so I'd hate to comment on something I don't know for sure, but I realize that that establishes a religious freedom, as I understand it, for the exercise of that freedom. But I wouldn't want to discuss the details of it," Bryant said in response to questions from The Associated Press.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi opposes the bill, saying it would allow discrimination against people based on race, sexual identity, religion and national origin.
"No state law should infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed rights, nor should any state law give a person a right to violate another person's rights," the ACLU said in a news release.
During the Mississippi Senate debate, there was no mention of whether the bill would allow discrimination against gay people or other groups. Rather, the debate focused on whether there's a need for a state law to spell out the freedom to practice religion that's already guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
Senators amended the bill to add "In God We Trust" to the state seal, and passed the bill 48-0. Bryant said during his State of the State speech Jan. 22 that he wants to add the phrase to the state seal. He said Wednesday that he had hoped legislators would deal with the seal in a separate bill, not tied to other issues.
The bill awaits consideration in the House Judiciary B Committee, where Chairman Andy Gipson said he has assigned it to a subcommittee for scrutiny.
"There are a lot of questions about it," Gipson, R-Braxton, said Wednesday. "It is not the Arizona bill. We just need to study it."
However, Campaign for Southern Equality, a group that promotes equal treatment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, says the Mississippi bill is similar to the one in Arizona.
"It's clear that this extreme bill is about legalizing discrimination not protecting religious freedoms," the group's executive director, the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, said in a news release criticizing the Mississippi bill.
"This proposed legislation is a step in the wrong direction as we move toward acceptance of LGBT people in all facets of life."
The Mississippi and Arizona bills are not identical but have similar phrases, and critics say those could lead to a person refusing to provide business services for a celebration by a same-sex couple, for example.
The Mississippi bill says: "'Exercise of religion' includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one's sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."
The Arizona bill says: "'Exercise of religion' means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said in brief interview and in a Facebook post on Wednesday that he is asking House members to remove portions of the bill that could lead to discrimination.
"I was not aware (nor was any other senator or interest group or citizen that I have talked to aware) of this intention or possible result when we voted on the bill on Jan. 31," Blount wrote on Facebook post. "I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. Obviously, I should have (all of us should have) been aware of this."
Online: Senate Bill 2681: http://bit.ly/1hheTXI .
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