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Miss. House panel advances religious freedom bill

Critics raise concern about anti-gay discrimination
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
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JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi House panel on Tuesday changed and passed a bill that says state and local government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices.

MississippiSupporters say the bill would reinforce the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and could have practical applications, such as helping churches that encounter problems with local zoning rules.

Opponents worry, however, that the bill is vaguely worded and could lead to discrimination against gay people or other groups.

Senate Bill 2681 is called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It passed the House Judiciary B Committee and goes the full House for debate in coming days.

The original version of the bill, which passed the Mississippi Senate on Jan. 31, was similar to a measure that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last week.

Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said that by limiting the Mississippi bill to government action and excluding private action, it’s different from the Arizona bill.

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“I don’t think it was Arizona before, and I know that with the House version it’s not the Arizona bill,” Gipson, who’s a Baptist minister, said after the bill passed his committee. “It was arguable whether it was doing what people said it did in the Senate version. Just to eliminate that argument, we took it to a clear state action only.”

The bill also would add the motto “In God We Trust” to the Mississippi state seal, as requested by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

More than a dozen Mississippi State University students protested against the bill Tuesday at the Capitol. Doctoral student L.B. Wilson called it “lazy legislation” that could be open to broad interpretation if it becomes law. He said he thinks it is intentionally targets LGBT people for potential discrimination.

“It opens that door wide enough that anyone with a genuinely held religious belief is permitted to discriminate on any grounds without worry that the state might intervene,” Wilson said.

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