The Evolution of SB 2681

by Zane Ballard

On Jan. 31, the Mississippi State Senate unanimously approved a bill titled “The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act” or SB 2681. In addition to adding “In God We Trust” to all versions of the state seal, this would give business owners and employees, as well as state employees, what some considered broad powers to discriminate by allowing them, on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” to deny service to individuals. News of this bill did not break until almost a month later, when Deep South Progressive published a first look at this bill online.

As the bill was very similar to the recent Arizona Senate Bill 1062, dubbed the “Turn Away the Gays Bill,” SB 2681 was projected to affect was primarily the LGBTQ community in Mississippi. After being referred to a House Judiciary committee, the language of the bill was altered slightly to say that a “substantial” burden would have to be placed on a businessperson’s exercise of religious freedom for the action to be sanctioned by the state. While this change did not completely diffuse the possible implications of the bill, another addition to the end of Section 1, which stated that “Nothing in this act shall create any rights by an employee against an employer if the employer is not a governmental agency” was enough to win the approval Mississippi Economic Council. Prior to this addition, the MEC had not endorsed the bill.

After this bill emerged from the House Judiciary committee, the amendments awaited House approval. But, on March 12, another amendment was made to the bill. In this version, the entire first section of the bill, which included the language considered by many to enable discrimination, and replaced it with the conference of the bill to a “religious freedom study committee” for further review. For almost a week this bill languished in committee, a lull which many thought meant the bill would not pass.

However, on March 18, the bill returned from committee and retained much of the previous language, though according to the American Civil Liberties Union-Mississippi, the impact of the bill had been narrowed in scope. However, in some ways the bill possessed broader language, referring to “neutral” laws as not being exempt from the legislation’s reach. In addition, Section 1 (7) of the amended bill made it clear that it would apply to “all state laws, rules, regulations and any municipal or county ordinances, rules or regulations and the implementation of those laws,” completely invalidating the efforts made in several Mississippi cities to pass LGBTQ-affirming policies.

On April 1, the bill passed with the previous amendments in both the House and the Senate, with a 79-43 vote in the House and a substantial majority in the Senate. The next day, Thursday, April 2, Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill into law, despite a constant stream of disapproving demonstrations and messages from residents of Mississippi, local LGBTQ activists and members of the Millsaps College community who did not believe that the bill was necessary or innocuous.