Mississippi Religious Law Should Remind Us That Separate Is Not Equal

Mississippi has joined North Carolina by passing a law claiming to uphold the religious rights of the state’s residents, when in fact the law merely echoes the mid-century belief that “separate, but equal” is possible. On July 1, business owners and employees of the state government in Mississippi will have the right to refuse service based on sexual orientation, gender identification, and marital status if they claim providing services goes against their religious beliefs. Whether you agree or disagree, you should take a closer look at Mississippi’s new law.

According to Mississippi’s HB 1523, which is now the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, the bill’s language is designed to protect three specific religious beliefs. First, the bill protects the religious belief that the term “marriage” should only refer to a union between one man and one woman. As a reminder, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, including those in Mississippi, had the right to marry.

Mississippi religious law goes against court decision [Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images]For anyone who is confused by my previous sentence, it is important to understand that, when the Supreme Court rules, those rulings are not mere suggestions; they are judicial decisions. For example, let us look back at Loving v. Virginia. In this landmark case heard in 1967, the country’s highest court decided that prohibitions on interracial marriages were unconstitutional. In fact, Judge Vaughn R. Walker cited the case in the decision that overturned California’s Proposition 8.

“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

When was the last time you heard of an interracial couple being denied the right to marry? Hopefully, your answer is 1967, because when the Supreme Court rules, it does so based on constitutional rights, which supersede state law. However, if you lived in Alabama in the late 1960s, you may remember that some local judges continued to enforce the state’s anti-miscegenation law until a U.S. District Court forced them to allow interracial marriages in 1970. Based on historical precedents, if Mississippi expects its new law to allow continued discrimination against the LGBT community, eventually the federal government will step in to stop this locally-allowed, religious-based discrimination.

Moving on, the second belief Mississippi’s new law protects is that sexual relations should only occur in a marriage between one man and one woman. Yes, you read that correctly. Mississippi has now made it legal for people to discriminate against unmarried and same-sex couples by, for example, denying them housing.

“The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a religious organization wholly or partially on the basis that such organization: Makes any decision concerning the sale, rental, occupancy of, or terms and conditions of occupying a dwelling or other housing under its control, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act.”

If you are reading carefully, you will have noticed that the language reads “religious organization,” which makes it appear that only an established church can deny housing, which makes little sense. Let me clarify by giving you Mississippi’s definition of religious organization.

“(a) A house of worship, including, but not limited to, churches, synagogues, shrines, mosques and temples; (b) A religious group, corporation, association, school or educational institution, ministry, order, society or similar entity, regardless of whether it is integrated or affiliated with a church or other house of worship; and (c) An officer, owner, employee, manager, religious leader, clergy or minister of an entity or organization described in this subsection.”

According to this definition, in Mississippi, anything can be a religious group and anyone a religious leader. Want to deny a same-sex couple or an unmarried couple a rental agreement? As long as you claim the denial is based on a religious belief, you are not discriminating, according to Mississippi law.

Unfortunately for Mississippi, there is something called the Fair Housing Act. While this act, passed back in 1968, does not currently protect members of the LGBT community or unmarried couples from housing discrimination, an executive order can be issued to federally block discrimination. Such an order would not impact all housing, such as single-family homes rented without the assistance of brokers, but it would be the first step in the right direction.

Finally, the third belief supported by Mississippi’s new law is that gender is determined, anatomically and genetically, at birth. By supporting this belief, the state law allows, in the name of religious beliefs, surgeons, counselors, and other professionals to refuse services based on gender identification. In addition, the support of this belief allows businesses to adopt sex-specific policies that are blatantly discriminatory toward transgender individuals.

In Mississippi and North Carolina, time travel is apparently real, as recent legislation has taken the states back to the middle of the 20th century, when discrimination was not only accepted but also expected. For the Americans who do not support discrimination based on any characteristics, now is the time to speak out against both Mississippi and North Carolina’s new laws.

As for the Americans who support any type of discrimination in the name of religion, I ask you to take a closer look at both your religion and the history of your country. Just slightly more than 150 years ago, white Christians claimed slavery was sanctioned by the Bible. In the 1960s, schools, buses and lunch counters in the South were still segregated, and the phrase “separate, but equal” was heard on the lips of white Southerners.

Mississippi religious law is new discrimination [AP Images]Discrimination on the basis of color and ethnicity is now illegal, even in the deep South. Do not let us regress by allowing states like Mississippi to create Jim Crow-era laws designed to separate people due to their sexual orientations, marital statuses or gender identifications in the name of religious belief, because separate is never equal.

[Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP Images]