by Bekah Ervin
On Wednesday, March 30, the Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate passed House Bill 1523. The bill was written to “protect the religious freedoms of citizens,” but has instead brought about quite the controversy. After passing through the House and Senate, the bill went to Governor Phil Bryant for his approval. On Monday, April 4, the Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and community members gathered to rally in front of the Governor’s Mansion, located about two miles from Millsaps College. On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 5, Bryant signed HB 1523 into law. Many Millsaps students, faculty and staff members attended Monday’s rally and started a major discussion regarding the recent passing of this bill.
Native Mississippian and freshman Jenna Gibson attended Monday’s rally and had much to say about HB 1523. “One of the most notable speakers at the rally was a Baptist preacher from the Jackson area. He talked about how important it was to note that not all people of a certain religion have the same ideologies: in this case, Baptist preachers,” Gibson stated via email. She added, “HB1523 is a bill that discriminates against people for who they love, and even though Phil Bryant considered it to be ‘religious freedom,’ not all Baptists see it like the Governor does.”
Sarah Owen, junior, believes that the bill is a step backwards for the state. Questioning the purpose, Owen wondered, “If the state legislature wants white straight male supremacy back so badly, why don’t they just build a time machine in Bryant’s basement?”
Alex Melnick, senior, also has concerns about HB 1523. She stated, “While we may not have anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws on the books here in Mississippi, it’s still absolutely ridiculous to legislate unconstitutional hate. In a way, I’m thankful for this bill. It exposes the pigheadedness of our legislators who systematically disenfranchise vulnerable Miss. populations… Our system is set up to punish minorities and women—anyone who isn’t a white man.”
Dr. Steve Smith, Millsaps professor of religious studies and philosophy, wishes he could say this to Governor Bryant: “Please notice the huge blind spot of conservative Christians who want this kind of law—they want to keep their cultural dominance and conformism in their own communities, and don’t see how oppressive their behavioral style is and how it achieves the conformity they want and causes a depressed economy and culture in Mississippi by driving away everyone who doesn’t march to their drum. They don’t have the slightest interest in other people exercising the freedom of their own convictions and can’t see the incongruity in passing a ‘religious freedom’ law just to strengthen their own position.”
In relation to the bill’s representation as protection of religious freedom, Dr. Smith stated, “I think there is a mindset behind this bill that sees Christianity as under siege, a mindset continually reinforced by militant voices in churches and media. The like-minded political leaders want to help Christians be strong in their faith against the onslaught of an anti-Christian mass culture. I too think that any sincerely religious person is bound to see a lot wrong with mass culture—because the ‘way of the world’ tends to be pretty crass, pretty trashy, pretty disrespectful of human dignity—but the sorely needed religious critique of culture often takes an unfortunate us-vs.-them form of setting up a separate self-justifying club of true believers.”
In addition to these Millsaps community voices, Millsaps College released a statement from President Robert Pearigen regarding the bill, which can be found here.