Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

As you have probably seen by now, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has signed into law a controversial bill that offers broad protections against government penalty for certain actions taken in accordance with particular religious beliefs.  

The “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act” singles out three religious beliefs:

The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that:

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

It goes on to, among other things, shield individuals, religious organizations and businesses that refuse to provide certain services because of those religious beliefs.

We have seen more than one state legislature attempt to enact such laws recently (though arguably Mississippi’s goes further to protect specific religious beliefs than the others). Virginia’s Governor vetoed a bill with a similar approach just last week.

Proponents of these laws insist they are necessary to protect religious freedom, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling barring same-sex marriage prohibitions. Critics, however, including a group of Baptist pastors who urged Governor Bryant to veto the bill, argue that this legislative response is “bad public policy” that invites discrimination and hostility toward “some of our most vulnerable friends and family.”

They are not the only Baptist voices to share their concern with Bryant. Native Mississippian and Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel Holly Hollman also sent a personal letter to the Governor asking him to veto the bill.  I asked her about this legislative trend and her opposition to the Mississippi bill, and she shared these thoughts:

How we protect religious liberty is just as important as why we protect it.

It is extremely important to understand the differences in these bills and the state and federal law contexts in which they arise to weigh their impact on religious freedom.  

For example, standards in Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (which Mississippi already has) can protect religious freedom through a balancing test that weighs substantial burdens on religion against compelling interests of the government, without regard to any particular law or religious practice.  Specific exemptions should be carefully crafted to address foreseeable conflicts between a religious need and what the law is intended to achieve.

Such exemptions can advance the cause of religious liberty without threatening other significant government policies, such as ensuring equal access to goods and services.  In general, creating peremptory exemptions to protect majoritarian religious beliefs against minority interests does not promote religious liberty and actually harms the public’s long-term commitment to religious freedom by picking unnecessary battles.

The BJC has closely monitored these recent legislative efforts in Mississippi and elsewhere, and continue to talk with people from various states about this issue. Look for a column with more on this topic from Holly in the next Report From the Capital.