Gov. signs religious freedom bill: Many Vicksburg businesses largely seem unaffected

Published 10:32 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mississippi’s governor signed a law Tuesday that allows religious groups and some private businesses to refuse service to gay couples based on religious beliefs.

Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523, despite opposition from gay-rights groups and some businesses who say it enables discrimination. Some conservative and religious groups support the bill.

Now that the law has passed, many businesses will have to make decisions about what it means for them, including Story Ebersole, owner of Storycook Favorites and the BB Club, a catering and event venue, both popular services for weddings.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Ebersole said she had not thought much about whether the bill would affect the way she does business yet.

“I haven’t been put in that situation yet,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that if I feel strongly enough about something because of my religious beliefs, that I have the right to feel that way without being penalized.”

Others seem to be less phased by the new law, like Mary Welch, owner of Paper Plus, a downtown business that sells invitations among other paper products.

“It’s not going to affect the way we do business,” she said. “We would do business with anybody.”

Welch added she thinks the legislation is out of line with what lawmakers should be doing.

“I feel that it’s not the government’s business to stick their nose into it,” she said.

Caterer Helen Abraham echoed Welch, adding she would never turn anybody away.

“If somebody came to me and I had a free weekend, I would do what they wanted me to do,” she said. “It’s not my business who gets married, especially if they like my food. I’m feeding them, and they’re paying me to feed them.”

Businesses similar to Vicksburg Country Club don’t seem to be affected as much as other businesses. General manager Patrick Buhrmann said their facility is often used as an event venue for weddings and receptions, but the legislation won’t really make a difference for them.

“As a private club, we evaluate all requests for functions on a case by case basis,” he said. “Regardless of anything else, I don’t think that policy will change.”

Many other business owners felt the bill was still too ambiguous at this point, including Sassafras owner Nancy Bullard, whose store is a popular selection for bridal registries.

“Everything I read says ‘no, that’s not what it says’ or ‘no, that’s not what it means,’” she said. “Oftentimes I think, I know there’s lawyers there looking at this going this could be interpreted this way, this way or four other ways I’m not even thinking about.”

Bullard said she does not think the legislation will bring about any changes in the way she runs her business.

The measure’s stated intention is to protect those who believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman, that sexual relations should only take place inside such marriages, and that male and female genders are unchangeable.

“This bill merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the Republican governor wrote in a statement posted to his Twitter account.

The measure allows churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to people whose lifestyles violate their religious beliefs. Individual government employees may also opt out, although the measure says governments must still provide services.

“This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws,” Bryant said. “It does not attempt to challenge federal laws, even those which are in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution, as the Legislature recognizes the prominence of federal law in such limited circumstances.”

Other states have considered similar legislation. North Carolina enacted a law, while governors in Georgia and South Dakota vetoed proposals.

Bryant acted within hours of receiving the bill after it cleared its final legislative obstacle Monday, even as opponents tried to marshal pressure to persuade Bryant to reject it.

“This bill flies in the face of the basic American principles of fairness, justice and equality and will not protect anyone’s religious liberty,” Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said in a statement. “Far from protecting anyone from ‘government discrimination’ as the bill claims, it is an attack on the citizens of our state, and it will serve as the Magnolia State’s badge of shame.”