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Businesses protest new Mississippi law

 

Shop manager and artist Lora Beth Cook applies a sticker that supports the “If You’re Buying We’re Selling” grassroots movement that originated in Jackson and aims to fight discrimination to the window at Lucky 7 Tattoo on Highway 45 in Columbus.

Shop manager and artist Lora Beth Cook applies a sticker that supports the “If You’re Buying We’re Selling” grassroots movement that originated in Jackson and aims to fight discrimination to the window at Lucky 7 Tattoo on Highway 45 in Columbus. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

 

JACKSON -- Some Mississippi business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion. 

 

Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs -- for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin. 

 

Hundreds of Mississippi businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: "We don't discriminate. If you're buying, we're selling." 

 

Organizers of the grassroots effort say that in Columbus, The Elbow Room, Lucky 7 Tattoos and the Columbus Arts Council have each shown support. 

 

L.B. Cook, an artist at Lucky 7 Tattoos on Highway 45 North, said she reached out to the group last month after hearing about the movement. 

 

"The message that I'm trying to send is that anyone and everyone is welcome," Cook said. "I also want to contribute to a community of understanding, respect, and love for everyone." 

 

Organizers say the first 500 stickers were distributed in about two weeks to businesses from the Tennessee state line down to the Gulf Coast. Another 1,000 stickers were on order. 

 

Cook got her sticker in the mail Wednesday and immediately put it up. 

 

Rob Swindol, an owner at The Elbow Room, also supports the campaign. However, he has chosen not to display the sticker at his downtown business because he feels that openly supporting one group alone is contradictory to the movement. 

 

"The phrase, 'If You're Buying, We're Selling,' indicates that I welcome business from anyone and everyone," he said. "It means that I am neutral...equality is the name of the game. Not special recognition." 

 

The Arts Council has not yet received their sticker but will display it when it arrives. 

 

The sticker campaign started last month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

 

The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason. While it does not specifically mention gays or lesbians, "People are going to take it as permission, if you will, to discriminate against people they don't necessarily agree with or like," said Jackson hair salon owner Eddie Outlaw, 42, who went out of state to marry his husband. 

 

"We have a long and well-documented history of discrimination in this state," Outlaw said. "To think there won't be any discrimination is laughable." 

 

Outlaw is among the leaders of the "We don't discriminate" campaign, and he displays one of the stickers in the window of his salon in Jackson's eclectic Fondren neighborhood.  

 

Bryant won praise from national conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, by signing the legislation that was backed by the state's Pentecostals and Southern Baptists. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who traveled from Washington to Jackson for a private bill signing ceremony April 3, is among Bryant's backers. 

 

"Those who understand the importance and cherish the historic understanding of religious freedom are grateful for leaders who respond to fact and not fictitious claims of those who are trying to quarantine faith within the walls of our churches or homes," he said. 

 

Bryant said the Mississippi act mirrors a federal law President Bill Clinton signed in 1993 and that 18 other states have enacted since the mid-1990s. The governor also said he does not believe Mississippi's law, which also adds "In God We Trust" to the state seal, will lead to anti-gay discrimination. 

 

"I would hope that people will realize that the law has no element in it that the federal law does not have in it," Bryant told The Associated Press in his Capitol office. "It is the same discussion of not burdening someone's religious freedom -- that the government, government should not burden someone's religious freedom without a compelling interest." 

 

In 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The state has a hate-crimes law, but it does not cover acts committed against gays and lesbians. 

 

 

 

Dispatch news editor William Browning contributed to this report.

 

 

 

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