Many of us have seen and heard the commentary regarding House Bill 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. Some of us have noted that the bill is discrimination codified. Others have pointed out that the intended adverse impact on the LGBT community is hurtful. Not all of us realize that the negative effects of HB1523 extend beyond the intentional harm to our LGBT brethren. HB1523 hits home in communities of color, impoverished communities, and already vulnerable communities with consequences that create additional risks. As many others have already said, the same prose that our state leadership is using to describe this bill has also been used to justify slavery, women's suffrage, and Jim Crow. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. HB 1523 is not narrowly tailored, does not protect one’s religious freedom, and will not protect you from a lawsuit. It is state-sponsored discrimination – plain and simple. House Bill 1523 puts everyone at risk, including the black community.
House Bill 1523 is not just an attack on the LGBT community, but it is anti-human. Not only has Mississippi gone out of its way to authorize discrimination against LGBT people, but also against other vulnerable people including our community. Proponents argue that there is a clear difference between so-called sexual behavior and skin color. They say that race is an immutable characteristic that is readily discernible without any exchange, and that no one could possibly know about your sexual conduct unless you verbalize it. That is simply rhetoric intended to avoid the factual realities that these issues are intersected. Our children, single mothers and fathers may suffer harm because they can be denied necessary health care, fired from their jobs or, otherwise, treated unfairly, and stripped of any redress on a state level. That means that we cannot seek damages due to these situations in the courts of our own state.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty’s 2014 Mississippi Demographic Profiles, more than 300,000 children live with a single parent. Seventy-five percent of those children are poor. Black children represent nearly half of children who live in poor families.
HB1523 allows pharmacies to turn away unmarried women seeking to fill birth control prescriptions. HB 1523 also allows health care workers to refuse counseling or fertility care to any woman (or man) simply because they may have had sex or children outside of marriage.
In Mississippi, just over 24,000 families used housing vouchers in 2015 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). HB 1523 allows single mothers/fathers to be turned away by a government-funded religiously-affiliated homeless shelter or refused rental of an apartment building by religiously-affiliated organizations.
In Mississippi, 8.4% of people 12 years of age and older reported illicit drug use in 2014 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). HB 1523 says religiously-affiliated organizations providing important social services like drug treatment programs – with taxpayer dollars -- can refuse anyone who has sex outside of marriage.
Our community cannot turn a blind eye to HB1523 and pretend “it’s about them.” Our community has long been anchored in the church. The church has been the sanctuary, the sacred place of peace for most African Americans for hundreds of years. We fill the pews and the rows of chairs at least once week, whether for Sunday service or Wednesday bible study. In church, we have been taught to marry and to take care of our elderly. This Act runs contrary to those fundamental principles.
HB1523 says that businesses that are open to the public may deny services relating to weddings or even anniversaries. Allow me to give this example: a single mother or father takes his or her out-of-wedlock child to the baker when ordering a wedding cake. HB1523 clearly states in Section 2b, “The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage” as a union between one man and one woman. The baker, as allowed by House Bill 1523, could deny that woman or man service because of a sincerely-held religious belief that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Our elders can also be impacted. HB 1523 says religiously-affiliated nursing homes can turn away an unmarried couple.
The U.S. Constitution makes clear that government should not discriminate based on race, sexual orientation or gender identity. Mississippi has decided to up the ante by taking a step backwards in authorizing discrimination against us, our children, our relatives, and our friends.
While your freedom of religion, perspective, and philosophy are all your own, people are people. We are all human. This brutal legislative session disrespected and devalued all Mississippians. Massive budget cuts and money mistakes, education underfunding, hostile takeovers, and total neglect for equality cut us deep. HB1523 added salt to the wounds. Let’s do what we have been taught to do in church and on the front porch, sitting on Mudear’s knee – let’s join hands, determined that we shall not be deceived, and decree “we shall overcome” this assault on our rights and on our community.
Jennifer Riley-Collins is Executive Director and Zakiya Summers is Director of Communications for the ACLU of Mississippi.