HB 1523 gets in the way of USM-Stony Brook baseball series

Published 9:00 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2018

By Patrick Magee

The Biloxi Sun Herald

HATTIESBURG — A Mississippi law that allows government and businesses to deny services to same-sex couples will take three home games off the schedule for the Southern Miss baseball team this year.

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Stony Brook, a public university located on Long Island in New York, was scheduled to play USM in Hattiesburg on Feb. 23-25, but a 2016 executive order by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo got in the way.

Cuomo banned all non-essential state travel to Mississippi on April, 5, 2016, after Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523, also known as the “Religious Freedom” bill, into law that same day.

The law went into effect on Oct. 10. The appeal to have the law struck down will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

HB 1523 makes it legal for businesses to refuse service to anyone based on religious beliefs. It was allowed to go into effect following a lengthy court battle when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals refused a rehearing by the full court on a lawsuit attempting to block the bill.

Instead of playing a weekend series in Hattiesburg on Feb. 23-25, USM will travel to take part in a tournament at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas.

USM, which opens the season with a three game series vs. Mississippi State in Hattiesburg on Feb. 16-18, plans to release its full schedule when opponents and game times have been settled for the Stephen F. Austin tournament.

“I just hate losing the three home games,” USM head coach Scott Berry said. “I’m sure it’s going to cost us for sure. That’s three gates and everything that goes into a game day in terms of revenue.”

Stony Brook was originally scheduled to travel to USM for a three-game series in 2014, but heavy snow in the northeast prevented the Seawolves from making the trip.

Brian Miller, who is Stony Brook’s associate athletic director of communications, said Tuesday that staff members for both teams came to the verbal agreement that they would try to play the series again at some point in the future.

“I think the issue was we did not a have formalized contract for that series,” USM athletic director Jon Gilbert said. “There was a former baseball staffer at the time who had ties to Stony Brook.”

USM and Stony Brook eventually agreed to play in 2018.

“Our athletic director (Shawn Heilbron) and coach (Matt) Senk did not realize that the travel ban included Mississippi,” Miller said. “We knew it was North Carolina, but we did not realize that it included Mississippi. Southern Miss obviously wasn’t pleased that we were trying to get out of it.”

Cuomo signed a state travel ban for North Carolina in March of 2016 over a law that mandated that people use the restroom in a government building that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate.

After discovering the Mississippi travel ban, Stony Brook looked into the possibility of traveling to Slidell, La., and making the trip each day to Hattiesburg for games, but the school decided against it.

“When the dust settled, we just felt it was best to not even chance it,” Miller said.

Miller said that the decision not to play at USM this season was made “in the last few weeks.”

Stony Brook is considered one of the more consistent Division I baseball programs in the northeast, having made a trip to the 2012 College World Series. The Seawolves finished 26-26 in 2017.

Southern Miss, which went to the CWS in 2009, is a power within Conference USA and is coming off a 50-16 season.

“Both times that we tried to play them unfortunately circumstances intervened,” Berry said. “I’m just thankful that Stephen F. Austin is letting us in their tournament.”