Oxonians react to ‘religious freedom’ bill going into effect Tuesday

Posted on Oct 6 2017 - 8:02am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

House Bill 1523, also referred to as the “religious freedom” bill, will go into effect in the state of Mississippi on Tuesday. Last year, the bill sparked national attention as many saw it as a setback for LGBTQ equality in the state.

HB 1523, which allows Mississippi businesses to abstain from serving LGBTQ individuals on the basis of religious beliefs, was passed by the Mississippi House and Senate in April 2016 — less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage.

The bill was challenged in federal court soon after its adoption. Last July, just before the law was supposed to go into effect, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the law was unconstitutional. This ruling, however, was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June, and earlier this week, the court refused to rehear the case, allowing the law to go into effect Tuesday.

The law says that individuals and businesses may, in the name of religious liberty, refuse service to individuals who violate the “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by” the act. The act provides that these beliefs are that: “a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter released a statement last year when the bill was first gaining traction saying the university will always support its community members and uphold the Creed.

“Diversity is a hallmark of education and enriches the environment and experiences of all our campus constituents,” Vitter said in the statement.

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill said the bill will not change the way Oxford businesses because of a non-discrimination resolution adopted by the Oxford Board of Aldermen in 2014.

“All Oxford employees will continue to operate as we always have, respecting the rights of all citizens and visitors, without regard to race, creed, color, national origin or sexual orientation,” Tannehill said. “Oxford is the most welcoming, forward-thinking community in the state of Mississippi — we employ, welcome and love people regardless of who they are or who they love. Our differences make us stronger.”

When asked by The Daily Mississippian, 13 Oxford establishments all stated they will continue to serve all customers. These businesses include Ajax Diner, Amelia, Mississippi Auto Arms, Square Books, The Lyric Oxford, Graduate Oxford, LuLu’s Shoes and Accessories, Hinton & Hinton, the UM Museum, Southside Gallery, TGC Outdoors, Proud Larry’s and Chick-fil-A. One Fine Day Events and Oxford Bridal and Occasions Boutique abstained from providing statements.

“If you’re not a criminal, you’re a customer,” Josh Gregory, owner of TGC Outdoors, said. “Your beliefs are your beliefs, and my beliefs are my beliefs.”

Hannah Chilling, vice president of Mississippi Auto Arms product development said the company believes everyone has the right to self-defense.

“History bears out that the first step to persecution of vulnerable minorities is to disarm them,” Chilling said.

Associate law professor Christopher Green said profit-seeking businesses have a strong incentive to maintain commercial relationships by not prying into customers’ or employees’ lives.

“The mere fact that behavior is legal does not mean that it will be common,” Green said. “The fact that businesses say that (HB) 1523 doesn’t change things at all is very strong evidence that the profit motive is a far stronger force than traditional sexual mores.”

Green said he doesn’t think HB 1523 has many “tangible” discriminatory effects but rather more “symbolic” effects.

“The impact from possible boycotts is certainly real, but the law itself doesn’t trigger one,” Green said. “Even the two dissenters from the denial of the rehearing did not point to tangible effects from the law but only disagreed about the way in which symbolic harm should be addressed by courts.”

Assistant professor of sociology James Thomas said the harms the bill could bring have real, tangible outcomes.

“The bill allows for businesses to fire transgender employees, clerks to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with couples believed to be having premarital sex,” Thomas said. “Doctors can deny treatments, and schools can create new policies regarding dress and bathroom use.”

Associate anthropology professor Kate Centellas said the bill perpetuates the idea that Mississippi is an intolerant state.

“It makes it easy for people outside the state to assume there aren’t progressive voices and active social movements here, because it fits into a narrative of Mississippi as ‘only’ poor and against equal rights,” Centellas said. “We know that there’s a lot of interesting and inspiring social activism here, but laws like HB 1523 overshadow the changes that have been made.”

Last year, in protest of the passing of HB 1523, Sherman Alexie, author of the common reading book, refused to attend the university’s Fall Convocation and New York, Vermont, Washington and California had banned state employees from work-related travel to Mississippi.
Wesley Craft, a sophomore who identifies as gay, said the bill sends a message from Mississippi to the LGBTQ community that they are not equal.
“I worry so much for the LGBT kids in our state who will grow up thinking that they ought to be treated like this,” Craft said. “We don’t know how people and businesses will react to it, but even one act of discrimination is too much.”

Freshman music major John Michael Walker, who identifies as gay, said he thinks HB 1523 symbolizes the underlying societal condemnation many LGBTQ people experience in the South.

“I doubt business owners will actually use their newfound rights to discriminate against their customers, but I do recognize while they may make you a cake, some will do so with spite,” Walker said. “Closed-mindedness hidden with a smile is something that I feel I’ll face for a long time.”

Couple and Ole Miss graduates Blake Summers and Jonathan Kent Adams said they feel the bill “serves as a punishment rather than a religious freedom act” and misrepresents Christianity.

“It is the gate bill to further hate, racism and cultural unity,” Summers said. “The LGBTQ community doesn’t want to abolish religion. We just want common rights and decency.”