[Editorial] Mississippi HB1523: Live and Let Live

Earlier this week Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 1523 to “protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions…from discriminatory action…” He goes on to say that the law does not interfere with any rights afforded to any citizen under currently existing laws. You can read his full statement here.

I caught wind of this in the form of critics decrying it as legalized discrimination. Headlines described it as awful and articles suggested crazy-sounding potential scenarios like women being fired for wearing pants. I’m also aware of the echo chamber that our social feeds can form. I follow people who share similar views as myself, resulting in everyone reinforcing everyone else and giving the false impression my opinion is the overwhelming majority. So I sought out breakdowns of the bill, taking extra interest in it since it is my home state. I could see and agree with the critics’ point of view. I would normally just leave it at that, as an unfortunate truth that I would quietly do what I could to undo; maybe write a letter, vote for the people I’d rather have making decisions, etc.

Then I saw that supporters of the bill were using this hashtag: #MSLiveAndLetLive. And something in me broke.

I needed to be sure I understood so I cut out the middle man and read the bill myself. It can be found here. I had issues with it right off the bat. Section 2a makes a statement that I simply don’t agree with. “…conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real…” As I understand it, religious liberty means that you are allowed to believe whatever you choose to believe. Same-sex marriage does not conflict with your religious liberty because it does not stop you from believing what you want. You can believe Adam and Steve are going to hell for being gay after they’re married just as much as you did before.

I also have find it problematic that the bill specifies exactly what “sincerely held religious beliefs” are protected. In this case the three beliefs are that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, that sex is reserved only for married people, and that your gender is an immutable fact which is dictated by your biology at birth. Specifying these protected beliefs implicitly gives more protection and validity in the eyes of the state government to religions that observe them than religions that don’t. In a country that is supposed to have a separation of church and state, it feels wrong to give these extra protections to certain religions.

But let’s get to the meat of the bill. Section 4 outlines many different things which can be done under this law. Religious organizations can deny same-sex couples wedding services of any kind, turn away homeless transgender people from their shelters, and fire people for having premarital sex. While I think these are dick moves, I can understand some allowances for churches and the like. Things get dicey when you start dealing with non-secular businesses like the Salvation Army though.

The biggest problems come when Section 4 starts detailing what individuals are allowed to do or not do. Anyone can deny their services to a same-sex couple looking to get married or celebrate their marriage. This includes wedding planning, rental of goods, food services, anything. Apparently businesses that are open to the public are only open to some of the public. Doctors can deny treatments, therapies, surgeries, etc. to individuals seeking sex reassignment or gender transitioning. I suppose psychiatrists only have to help their patients be happier when it suits them. Workplaces can set rules for bathroom access and dress code based on sex. (Remember, that’s “sex” as defined earlier, an immutable fact determined by anatomy at birth.) I’m sorry Homer, pink is a female color, we’re going to have to let you go. Employees can speak or engage in “expressive conduct” about these protected beliefs. “Expressive conduct”? I guess this means it would be legal to tell a gay coworker every day that he or she is going to hell and leave derogatory notes on his or her desk. And lastly, state officials can refuse themselves from being party to the licensing of a same-sex marriage. Here I thought since same-sex marriage is now legal that a government official should have no reason to not carry out a lawful act covered by their job description.

Live and let live. That’s the hashtag that supporters of HB1523 were using. Google defines that phrase as an idiom meaning “you should tolerate the opinions and behavior of others so that they will similarly tolerate your own.” This bill, now a law going into effect on July 1st, is the exact opposite of that. Who someone loves, who someone sleeps with, and who someone knows oneself to be in their heart does not in any way interfere with your life or your beliefs. If you have a business that is open to the public, that includes ALL of the public. Everyone has the freedom of religion in this country. That means you are free to believe in whatever you want to believe. It does not mean you should be allowed to discriminate against others and call it “sincerely held religious beliefs.” If the teachings of the Flying Spaghetti Monster told me that it was an abomination for Asian people to eat pizza and I didn’t allow Asian people to eat in my pizza joint I would be held accountable under the law. So too should any business owner denying services to someone just for being who they are.

HB1523 tries to make a case for itself in Section 2d. It cites previous examples of specific religions being given special allowances; Quakers and other pacifists are allowed to serve in the military in exclusively noncombatant roles and observers of the Sabbath are excused from work on their weekly holy day. The key difference is that there is no victim in these examples. No one is being denied services allowed to others, no one is being discriminated against. Section 2 even goes on to hilariously state that this law will contribute to a more “respectful, diverse, and peaceful society.” All this law does is allow, even encourage, disrespect. Not only does that drive away diversity, but it can only create hostility, the very opposite of a “peaceful society.”

This law legalizes actions I feel would be discriminatory. And to put it quite simply, discrimination is wrong. It’s very frustrating when the government that is supposed to help protect its citizens from such things would allow a law like this to pass, and with such ease. It’s backwards, hateful, and not what any part of this country should represent. As long as it doesn’t interfere with another person’s rights or happiness, everyone should feel safe and free to be whoever they are.

Everyone should just live and let live.

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