April 5, 2016 may seem like an uneventful day to most, but this day signified a substantial change in the Mississippi political landscape. On that day, Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into law. This legislation protects individuals and businesses with at least one of three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” from government intervention if that individual or business denies services to someone.
The three protected beliefs include the following: that marriage is solely between a man and a woman, that sexual relations should not occur outside of such a marriage and that one’s sex is either male or female and determined at birth. Rob Hill, the Mississippi director of the Human Rights Campaign told the Clarion-Ledger that HB 1523 is “the most discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ state law in the country,” and rightly so.
Mississippi has consistently refused to enact legal protections for the LGBTQ community. In fact, the Hospitality State is one of 17 states where someone can be fired for being LGBTQ and one of 28 states where LGBTQ people can be denied housing. The state allows conversion therapy, a practice multiple medical associations oppose. Mississippi also does not have a statewide non-discrimination ordinance, leaving Mississippians of all backgrounds vulnerable to discrimination.
By failing to protect the LGBTQ community, Mississippi fails all of us. Members of this community may be our neighbors, friends, classmates, co-workers, fellow churchgoers or family members. LGBTQ people are active members of communities large and small across the state, and we must recognize that. Whether or not we are aware of it, we all know members of the LGBTQ community.
With this in mind, political leaders and citizens alike are confronted with many important questions that require answers. What does the lack of protections say about Mississippians today? Do they present the best of what our state can offer, or do they show an unwillingness to move beyond our state’s often dark past? If Mississippi claims to be the “Hospitality State,” then what do laws like HB 1523 say about our commitment to welcoming others? After considering these questions and the evidence, it is clear that the state’s actions do not coincide with its professed ideals.
Mississippi can and must align itself with the values it claims to hold. If our state is going to call itself the Hospitality State, then it must be ready to welcome everyone with hospitality, not just those it deems worthy through an arbitrary standard. If our state is committed to moving beyond its troubled past, it must look ahead to a better future instead of looking back to maintain the status quo. This is not a political issue; this is a moral issue. Treating everyone equally under the law should not be a divisive stance; it should be a universal commitment across our society.
LGBTQ issues, such as equal access to housing and basic services, are not isolated; these are issues that affect all of us. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This mutuality continues today as it did then, regardless of race, party affiliation, sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is time for Mississippi to enact legal protections for the LGBTQ community. We have the power to do it; the question is: Will we stand against injustice, or will we continue to look the other way?
Levi Bevis is a senior Public Policy Leadership major from Florence, Alabama.