William Winter Institute Statement re. Discriminatory “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”

The Mississippi legislature is debating a measure that would give businesses a license to discriminate against their customers. Let’s repeat that with some added emphasis: Right now, in 2014, fifty years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the Mississippi legislature is debating a measure that would give businesses a license to discriminate against their customers.

Some legislators appear to hope that our state’s citizens will sit idly by as our civil rights erode. We will not. Here’s why: SB 2681 would proactively enshrine into Mississippi law the idea that someone may use religion as an excuse for denying business to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. The amendment has already passed the Mississippi Senate and is headed for a vote in the state House of Representatives. Mississippians once again must take a stand against discrimination and injustice.

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation believes in a society where people of all backgrounds and identities are treated equally, and where equality of and access to opportunity are available and valued by all. This so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act flies in the face of the very idea of equality for all.

Just as a restaurant shouldn’t be able to refuse a meal to customers because of their race, neither should a pharmacist be able to deny medicine to someone because he or she is gay. The archaic and broadly-written measure under debate has far-reaching implications we can’t yet fathom. Doctors, law firms, banks and even hotels could use this law to turn away, in the name of religion, people and families in need of service. Fifty years ago, in 1964, we as a nation decided this was wrong. Why, then, in 2014, are we having this debate?

Make no mistake about it: This bill is bad for Mississippi in more ways than one. Aside from the shameful cloud of discrimination that would settle permanently over our state, SB 2681 could also affect economic growth and development. Last week we saw some of the nation’s largest companies and most respected brands condemn similar legislation in Arizona, threatening to relocate any current or proposed ventures away from the state. There’s no reason to think things will be different for Mississippi. In these times of economic uncertainty, we cannot afford to turn away a single dollar or a single job.

Supporters of this bill argue that a person’s exercise of religion is somehow “burdened” by having to do business with someone if it goes against their beliefs. Thankfully, the U.S. Constitution relieves any burden: The Constitution says that a person’s ability to operate according to his religion stops the minute he or she ventures into the commercial market to make a profit. Establishing the ability to pick and choose who is worthy of service creates a dangerous, slippery slope. Furthermore, laws that single out a group of citizens for unfair treatment are completely antithetical to our nation’s core values. Our representatives in Jackson should be focused on making it easier for people to get ahead – not creating roadblocks for hardworking people who want nothing more than to be productive, participatory members of society.

A perhaps surprising fact about our state: Twenty-six percent of same-sex Mississippi couples are raising children here, a higher percentage than in any other state. These couples work and pay taxes to support our services. Their children attend Mississippi’s schools. They buy food in our stores. In increasing numbers, their children will live and vote here. All of them deserve a loving welcome.

We urge the state House of Representatives to defeat this measure. Please don’t turn our state into a place where one’s exercise of religious freedom erodes the freedoms of another.