A bill that opponents say would legalize discrimination in Mississippi was approved by the state Legislature on Tuesday and now awaits action by the governor.
The measure, titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was approved 79-43 in the House and 37-14 in the Senate.
It’s the third iteration of the bill, which started out similar to an Arizona proposal that was dubbed the “turn away the gays” bill because opponents said it would allow business owners to refuse service to gay couples or interracial couples on religious grounds. The Arizona bill was vetoed by the state’s governor in February.
Much of that original language in the Mississippi bill was removed, though a conference committee Monday night did insert language that sparked similar fears.
The final version of a bill says state and local governments cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices.
Republican Sen. John Polk said the bill would not permit discrimination based on religion. He compared the bill’s religious protections to the civil rights movement.
But Democratic Sen. David Blount was skeptical.
“The measures that eliminated discrimination did not come from this Legislature,” he said. “They came from the federal courts.”
There was similar acrimony in the House debate.
“This has been passed by 18 other states, and has been in federal law for years and years with no issues, no discrimination,” said Republican Rep. Andy Gipson. “It does not discriminate, but what it does do is protect people from discrimination, religious people in the state of Mississippi.”
Democratic Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, recounted Mississippi’s history of discrimination.
“You saw what that does,” Jones said. “If you don’t think this bill does what I know it does, you go make a fool out of somebody else.”
Jimmy Porter, executive director of the Christian Action Commission, which is the lobbying arm of the state’s influential Southern Baptist convention; and the Rev. David T. Tipton Jr., superintendent of the Mississippi District of the United Pentecostal Church, signed a letter left on senators’ desks Tuesday.
They urged support for the bill and said: “Opponents of this bill, though numerous and loud, are primarily out-of-state, anti-religious special interest groups.” They also said Mississippi is “one of, if not the most, Bible-minded states in America.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and a gay-rights group, Human Rights Campaign, issued statements criticizing the bill.
“Even though the Mississippi Legislature removed some of the egregious language from Arizona’s infamous SB 1062, we are disappointed that it passed this unnecessary law and ignored the national, public outcry against laws of this nature,” Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU, said in a news release.
Contributing: The Associated Press