Up To No Good: Mississippi religious liberty law is next in LGBT battles

Those misbehavin' Mississippians didn’t learn from the media thrashing of Georgia and North Carolina. When the Magnolia State began crafting its version of a religious liberty bill, it drew fire faster than you could say "Incoming!"

We're beginning to see a standard template for such articles: lopsided sourcing, corporate threats, pressure on the governor, dire warnings of threats to freedom, marginalizing of most clergy voices. (Usually the template also includes sarcasm quotes around "religious freedom," but for some reason not this time).

Like efforts in several other states, the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act is meant to shield people of faith from being sued or prosecuted for not wanting to sanction same-sex relationships, such as photographing a gay wedding.  Mississippi goes further than most states, though: It would also allow other exemptions, such as fostering children or licensing gay marriages.

MSNBC wastes little time framing the story the "right" way:

The Mississippi Senate voted Wednesday evening to pass a religious freedom bill which some say could have sweeping anti-LGBT repercussions for the United States.
The Republican-dominated Senate voted 31-17 to pass the controversial bill, called the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act."
The legislation says that businesses, social workers and public employees cannot be punished for denying services based on the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman or that "sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage." It also protects individuals who believe gender is determined at birth.

It would be hard to pack more loaded terms into the top of this story:

* "Some say" -- a clever way to accuse without presenting the accuser. It was Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, but the article doesn't say so until nearly the end.

* "Anti-LGBT" -- Who would side with bigotry?

* "Republican-dominated" -- This wasn't the will of the people; it was forced on them by one party.

The rest of the MSNBC article seems even-handed, with three quotes favoring the bill and three opposing. However, those in favor include the governor and lieutenant governor, plus a state senator. Opponents, besides another senator, include state officials of the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign. I guess no activist groups like the bill.

The Washington Post starts even sooner, with the headline: "Mississippi's Senate just approved a sweeping 'religious liberty' bill that critics say is the worst yet for LGBT rights."  And in case you didn’t get the point, the first quote goes to LGBT leader Ben Needham, who calls the Mississippi measure "probably the worst religious freedom bill to date."

The Post does give space to proponents, borrowing from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Ministers, florists, photographers, people along those lines -- this bill would allow them to refuse to provide marriage-related business services without fear of government discrimination," says State Sen. Jenifer Branning. "It takes no rights away from anyone."

But WaPo follows with Erik Fleming of the ACLU, who raises the specter of segregation-era Mississippi: "People say that it is just religious, but there were people who had a religious belief that black and white people should be segregated, and you're opening that Pandora's box again."

That's another part of the emerging template: bookending supportive quotes with disparaging ones. And what did religious people say in reaction? The newspaper apparently didn't ask.

The longest report I've seen on this matter is in the Clarion-Ledger. That article is an exhaustive 2,100 words (with a drastically cut version posted by the Religion News Service).

But even the largest newspaper in Mississippi doesn't play it straight:

The Mississippi Senate passed HB1523, known as the Religious Liberty Accommodation Act, Wednesday night in a 32-17 vote. The bill gives businesses the right to deny service to members of the LGBT community based on religious or moral beliefs without facing retribution from the state.
Within minutes of its passing, national organizations weighed in with their response.
The Human Rights Campaign called the acts of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Senate "shameful" and called on Gov. Phil Bryant to veto the bill.

Yep, that was Chad Griffin again. And note how the criticism gets more space than the description of the bill itself.  

Oh, but then the article adds the defense, right? Nah. More criticism. Something called the Civil and Human Rights Coalition evokes the Jim Crow era:

"Ross Barnett, a former Mississippi governor, once used religion to justify Jim Crow laws by calling God 'the original segregationist.' Religious arguments have also been used in our nation to oppose women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the abolition of slavery," the coalition said in an emailed statement.

Then we get a veiled threat from Nissan North America, which "employs approximately 6,400 people at their Canton facility." Nissan says it opposes any legislation that would allow discrimination against LGBT people.

At last, the Clarion-Ledger recalls that a major conservative group -- the American Family Association -- is based in Mississippi. Tom Wildmon, its president, gets eight paragraphs defending the right not to deal with gays:

Referencing providing a service to a same-sex couple who wants to get married, Wildmon said, "The owner doesn't go, 'Well, are you gay? Then you can't buy a cake.' That's insane."
He added, however, that the government should not be able to force a business to provide a service that is against their religious beliefs.
"They shouldn't be forced by the government to do that," he said. "That’s not unloving or unkind. That’s somebody who has a conviction about that and they don’t want to participate in it. Just like if somebody doesn't want to drive an alcoholic to a bar … I don't want to participate in that. He can go on his own if wants to. They can get married if they want to."

Well, that sounds pretty balanced, no? But then come still more criticisms of the bill -- from the ACLU, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson City Council president, even TV host Montel Williams. More bookending, not to mention ganging up.

Of all the reports above, the Clarion-Journal is the only one that directly cites religious leaders. And even then, it's hardly even-handed:

Chris Donald, a United Methodist pastor and Chaplain at Millsaps College, helped author a letter to The Clarion-Ledger regarding HB1523. Donald and other ministers throughout the state say they object to the bill as "concerned citizens and as followers of Jesus Christ."

Then it runs the entire 444-word letter, bearing 10 ministers' names.  The letter calls the bill a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, serving to "preference one individual’s religious belief."

Do other ministers favor the bill? We won't know from this article. It ends shortly thereafter.

More Mississippi misbehavin'.


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