Jim Crow for the digital age

Published 10:45 am Friday, February 28, 2014

A controversial proposal in front of Mississippi lawmakers is too vague and could be twisted into a state-sponsored tool promoting discrimination.

The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Senate Bill 2681) passed the Senate in January and went to the House for approval. But on Thursday, a day after Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer vetoed a similar bill in her state, members of the house said they planed to neutralize concerns about whether the bill could lead to discrimination against gays, lesbians and other groups.

A portion of both bills defines the exercise of religion as “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 beliefs.”

Neither bill specifically mentions homosexuals, religious or ethnic groups by name, but its easy to see how the language could be viewed as a modern day endorsement of Jim Crow.

Don’t want to serve blacks, Jews or Catholics at your lunch counter? Just say it’s against your religion. How preposterous.

Though much of the national focus on Arizona’s bill has been on the implied impact on gays and lesbians, the language is open-ended enough that anyone could fall victim to discrimination under its guise.

Let’s say two friends of the same gender — perhaps members of a church group — go out to dinner together. If the restaurant owner suspects the two might be a same-sex couple, service could be refused and the restaurant would be fully protected under law.

Christians participating in what most Mississippians would consider everyday activities could also be refused service under the  Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Had a few too many or even just a single drink at a bar and want a ride home in a cab? Better hope the taxi driver isn’t Muslim. Alcohol use is against the practice of Islam, and he wouldn’t have to take you anywhere.

How about that delicious bacon cheeseburger you had for lunch? You could find yourself legally kicked out of a hotel owned by Jews or Hindus for consuming foods that are against their religion.

These of course are extreme examples, but would be fully protected under the Religious Freedom Act.

Essentially, it could make any travelers nervous about coming to Mississippi. Here in Warren County we rely heavily on tourism dollars and know first-hand that anything that is bad for tourism is detrimental to our state. The Mississippi Economic Council agrees.

“MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing non-discrimination policies impacting their customers and employers,” the council said in a written statement.

The bill obviously needs major work to ensure that it isn’t Jim Crow dressed up for the digital age.

Even members of the far right side of the Mississippi House agree.

“We do believe there are more questions, more research and study to be done on this,” said state Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton. “And we want to be sure that … whatever we do is a well-reasoned approach.”

Gipson, known as one of the most conservative members of either chamber of the Legislature, is right.

Let your state representative know how you feel.