In 2013, I wrote a column in this space where I talked about the very personal conversion I had regarding my feelings on same sex marriage. I had grown up with a deep and profound respect for the Bible, and the teaching of my Christian faith. Throughout my education, I developed a profound respect for the rule of law as well. As a state senator, and later as governor, these passionately-held beliefs guided my decisions as an elected leader.
It is because of my love of the law and my commitment to Christianity that I tell you the Mississippi Religious Freedoms law is far worse than you have read about.
We live in a democracy, and elections have consequences. The elected leaders of my beloved home state have a right to govern by principles that guide them, because the people gave them a right to do so. I will let higher powers judge their motives and its impact on our collective ability to love one another and care for those less fortunate. But whatever principles do govern their leadership have driven them to create a truly terrible law.
Public disagreements on policy are natural in a republican democracy. But I'm not talking about that. The unintended consequences of this law, technically speaking, create a once in a generation debacle.
As a former policy maker, I can say they should be ashamed. As a lawyer, I'm just embarrassed.
This law sets in motion the very real possibility where anyone can demand that state and local governments take any and all actions necessary to accommodate religious beliefs regarding sex and marriage.
This is the legal equivalent of a soup sandwich.
For example, if a person's deeply held religious beliefs suggest that gay marriage is wrong, an individual can demand that the local school district (or any other public agency) fire any and all gay school teachers (or agency employees). If the school district does not, that person could file suit against the school district to enjoin the district and collect damages and attorney's fees.
There is no definition of sex, and there are no protections for the accused. The law is specifically intended to subjugate people who might be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And if that isn't bad enough, it doesn't stop there. The burden of proof for how this hypothetical teacher proves they are NOT gay - or a Salem witch for that matter - is left open ended. The only protections in the law are for the accusers; there are no protections for those who are minding their own business and might find themselves caught in the web of state-endorsed discrimination set in motion by HB1523.
Maybe your deeply held religious beliefs suggest that a DHS worker should be fired for pre-marital sex with a boyfriend, or a State Trooper for cheating on his/her spouse. In any of these events, "a person" can disrupt and drain the city's, county's, state's or school district's coffers with virtually limitless lawsuits seeking damages and attorney's fees.
Proponents of HB1523 will surely say "not true." But there is absolutely nothing in the bill to prevent such interpretations as those above.
This law will have a profound economic impact on existing Mississippi businesses, however.
This is a state law, but it is an international issue. The U.S Navy recently moved a ship commissioning of the USS Portland from Pascagoula after the mayor of Portland refused to travel to Mississippi for the ceremony. Minnesota, New York, Washington and Vermont -- have banned non-essential travel for state employees to Mississippi. There were more than 20 films made in Mississippi last year. Two projects have already cancelled plans to shoot there this year.
Travel and tourism is the fourth largest private sector employer, providing over 85,000 direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs. If travel to Mississippi decreases 10 percent, we are looking at more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs being eliminated. It would reduce state and local tax revenues by almost $620 million.
We don't have as many multi-national employers based here, or as many new economic development projects in the making. And because of actions like this, they're not going to be coming here anytime soon.
While the major corporations are not based in Mississippi, they make up a huge portion of the employment base. Walmart was a large reason why the bill in Arkansas got significantly altered. The NCAA was the driving force behind halting a similar (though less egregious) bill in Indiana. It will take significant pressure from major employers to begin to turn the tide on this issue - and stop future legislation.
When I wrote that article about same sex marriage two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the very personal and private messages of support and thanks. The messages came from people I barely knew, but also some I have known and worked with for years. I had friends and members of my family tell me for the first time they were gay.
Of course, I hope members of the local, national and international business community stand up to the Speaker of the House who wrote this bill, and the Governor who signed it. I also hope they can begin to recognize - as I did - how their own friends, people they work with, and members of their own family are directly impacted by this bill.
Most importantly, I hope they will decide to finally put a stop to Mississippi's seemingly endless cycle of hate and discrimination.
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