Mississippi Legislature Approves Far Reaching Religious Freedom Bill

Mississippi’s state capitol

Now that the media’s attention has moved on from the national outcry over the Arizona “religious freedom” bill, vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, that would have given fundamentalist Christian business owners a special pass to discriminate against LGBT people, Mississippi has quietly and quickly passed their own version of the bill. This time the governor is widely expected to sign it:

After simultaneous debate in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature Tuesday, state lawmakers approved a religious freedom bill that some have argued could lead to discrimination against LGBT people and others.

First in the House, the bill passed 79-43, and later, Senate lawmakers approved the bill with a wide majority. Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign the bill into law.

As it is written, Senate Bill 2681 — or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act — largely mirrors the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other bills passed in 18 states that mirror the federal law, except for language that prevents employees of private businesses from raising legal claims against those employees under the bill. Proponent lawmakers say the bill will protect state citizens’ free exercise of religion from government intrusion, while some lawmakers in both chambers questioned whether it would have unintended consequences — including permitting discrimination.

Several lawmakers questioned the bill’s sponsoring lawmakers in both chambers.

After repeated questions by his colleagues about possible consequences of the bill and what exactly it intends to do, Rep. Joey Hood, sounding frustrated, said, “What we’re trying to do, gentlemen, is just protect the religious freedom of Mississippians.”

During the Senate debate, Sen. Derrick Simmons, a Democrat who has been outspoken in his opposition to the legislation, urged his colleagues to vote no, saying, “I urge you not to legalize discrimination in the State of Mississippi.”

The reason that astute people understand that these bills are one-hundred percent about discriminating against the LGBT community is that people who are paying attention know that there is absolutely no threat to “religious freedom” in the United States of America. This is simply the latest in the political right’s long tradition of using buzzwords and dogwhistles in order to codify discrimination into law. The conservative lawmakers of Mississippi and whatever right wing think tanks are writing their bills know that they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing a “God hates fags” law, but they’ve learned from their daddy Lee Atwater that if you find a handy buzzword to inflame wingnut support — in this case “religious freedom” — that they can get away with a lot more. This is how Atwater explained the “Southern strategy,” which allowed politicians to appeal to racists without appearing racist themselves:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

It’s important to note that there are still many politicians and pundits working out of Atwater’s playbook on the race issue today. And now they’ve augmented that with anti-gay dogwhistles. You can’t say “God hates fags,” because being anti-gay is no longer socially acceptable, but you sure as hell can say “religious freedom” over and over again, because the intended audience knows exactly what you’re talking about.