Religious Freedom Bill to be studied

Published 8:47 pm Saturday, March 15, 2014

A controversial bill that was amended earlier this week to allow lawmakers to study it more closely is a smart move, members of the local congressional delegation said this week.
The Mississippi House of Representatives voted 80-37 Wednesday to amend Senate Bill 2681, widely known as the religious practices bill. The vote calls for a study panel of combined House and Senate Judiciary committees.
An amendment that inserts the phrase “In God We Trust,” on the state seal was passed intact as well.
SB 2681, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act would “provide that state action or any action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.”
State Senator Briggs Hopson III said the possibility that the bill could allow discrimination was not raised when the Senate unanimously passed the initial version of the bill in January.
“When it came to the Senate, there was never any mention or discussion about discriminatory possibilities,” he said.
Hopson, along with state representative Alex Monsour said the bill was based on the 1993 federal law signed by President Bill Clinton. Originally promoted primarily by Democrats, the 1993 federal law was passed in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the drug conviction of a Native American using peyote.
“This was mirrored after the federal law that was passed years ago that protected religious freedoms,” Hopson said. “At the time it passed the Senate, there was no discussion about the possibility that it could lead to discrimination. Once the Arizona bill came up, people started looking at it and thought it had some similar language.”
Hopson added that he expects to be a member of the bicameral judicial panel tasked with taking a closer look at SB 2681.
Last month, the House voted to gut portions of the bill that critics claimed left the door open for people such as business owners to discriminate against others based on their personal religious beliefs.
In February, the Civil Subcommittee of the House voted to mold the bill after the 1993 RFRA. The amendment limits the bill to addressing actions by government — not individuals or businesses.
“If you look at the language in the bill, it’s basically the same language as the federal version,” he said. “We took the part out that could have been discriminatory. The law is based on the language that is in the bill that was signed by Bill Clinton in 1993.
The law began to began drawing scrutiny in February after a similar bill moved through the Arizon legislature before Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it. Critics of the Arizona law said it could lead to discrimination against gay people and other groups. Examples used included one where a Hawaiian baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple claiming it was a burden on her right to practice her religious beliefs.
Rep. Oscar Denton, who won the race for the seat vacated by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr., said it is the right move to take a close look at anything that could allow for discrimination.
“I’m glad we came up with the amendment so we could study this a little further,” Denton said. “I don’t want to get into the same situation we had in Arizona. I’m all for everybody having equal rights and being able to practice their religion. I think we did the right thing of having it go to a study.”
After the Wednesday vote to study the law, the ACLU of Mississippi raised concerns that the law could still lead to discrimination.
“The ACLU of Mississippi remains concerned that the status of SB 2681 continues to open the door to discrimination against any group based on religious objections. The study does no more than keep this potential license to discriminate alive,” Jennifer A. Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said in a statement.

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