Mississippi’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” Doesn’t Restore Religious Freedoms

Mississippi’s legislature just passed the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”.  I say “so-called” because the Act does not actually restore anyone’s religious freedoms. What the legislation does do, is allow a person’s religious belief alone as sufficient justification to deny goods and services to the LGBTQ community that are otherwise offered to the general public.

I am tempted to write this off as simply another example of the extremes that conservative, ultra right-wing zealots are willing to go to deny to the LGBTQ community the equality and freedoms that others enjoy.  The rhetoric in newspapers, legislative chambers and even comments on blog posts would have you believe that refusing services to gay couples and families is a fundamental part of Judeo-Christian belief that has been unfairly encroached upon by our secular system of laws.  I have so many objections to this position that I cannot list them all; I am tempted to merely say I am confident that, with the passage of time, this law and the attitude that supports such laws will be appropriately consigned to the dustbin of history.  Everyone is entitled to their  own religious beliefs, but when you operate a business or run a publicly funded social service agency open to the public, those beliefs do not give you a right to discriminate.

However, we cannot simply “write this off” and await the passage of time for the truth to reveal itself.  Not anywhere, but especially not in Mississippi.  Mississippi is home to thousands of LGBTQ people and their children; in fact, it is the state with the greatest proportion of LGBTQ couples raising children. Yet, it has worked overtime to deny these families fair and equal treatment under the law. 

Justice Kennedy noted in his majority opinion in the Windsor case that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing lawful same-sex marriages, “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”  And, this was based solely on the denial of marriage recognition.  How much harder will it be for parents to explain to their children being turned away at the store or restaurant – with the blessing of the government!?  Consider the impact on that young person’s life, self-esteem, and appreciation for his or her family and how it aligns with other families.

Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be a same-sex couple raising children in Mississippi.  Of course we know that Mississippi law prohibits these children from creating legal relationships with both of their parents, leaving one of them as a legal stranger.  A legal stranger.  This means they have no right to pick a child up at school, or take them to a doctor, or obtain healthcare information about their child.  They cannot petition the court for redress of grievances when it involves their child (such as suing for wrongful death).  Their children cannot automatically inherit property or claim survivor benefits when the parent dies.   Some (but, by no means all) of those things can be resolved through legal paperwork, IF the family can afford it.  But, what about daily living?  In an environment so hostile to LGBTQ families, and one in which the consequences can be so dire, how do parents conduct their daily lives, in order to maintain an intact family, to hold onto their job, to support their children’s school activities?  Too many of us understand the concept of “closets” for the LGBTQ community.  In Mississippi, the legislature is trying not only to keep us in closets, but also to push back in those who may have ventured out.  And then they’re trying to lock those closets shut by creating a government-sanctioned pathway for the rest of society to discriminate against them.

Family Equality Council is proud of our work in Mississippi, work that reaches real families, that provides real protections to those families living at the intersections of race, gender, poverty, sexual orientation, parenthood, and now state-sanctioned discrimination.  We will continue that work; we will lobby against bills such as these, and we will urge Governor Bryant to veto the Mississippi legislation.

But we must all remain vigilant; we must never allow these misguided attempts to “protect” religion to succeed in keeping our rights from us, harassing and hurting us and our children.  We must stand up, make our voices heard and demand fair and equal treatment under the law.

I close by offering this passage from Justice Bosson, of the New Mexico Supreme Court, who explained why laws providing for equal treatment do not impinge on a person’s private religious beliefs, but instead to control their discriminatory actions in the public sphere:

“[T]his case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. [People] are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects [them] in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.

In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, [people] have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world.  In short, I would say to [you], with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.”