Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a state measure Tuesday (April 5) that allows public and private businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on the employers' religious beliefs. House Bill 1523 was passed by state legislators Friday. Gay rights' advocates have been protesting the law this week, saying the legislation is outright discriminatory.
Bryant acted within hours of receiving the bill after it cleared its final legislative obstacle Monday, even as opponents tried to marshal pressure to persuade Bryant to reject it.
The measure's stated intention is to protect those who believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman, that sexual relations should only take place inside such marriages, and that male and female genders are unchangeable.
"This bill merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the Republican governor wrote in a statement posted to his Twitter account.
Bryant previously said he did not consider the bill discriminatory, according to WLOX television in Mississippi. Some conservative and religious groups support the bill, reports CBS News.
"You're not free if your beliefs are confined to your mind. What makes America unique is our freedom to peacefully live out those beliefs, and the Constitution protects that freedom," said Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek regarding Bryant's decision to sign the law into effect
Also referenced as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, Fiedorek said the overwhelming majority of state voters support it.
"Mississippians from all walks of life believe that the government shouldn't punish someone because of their views on marriage. The people of Mississippi, from every demographic, support this commonsense 'live and let live' bill, which simply affirms the freedom of all people to peacefully live and work according to their deeply held beliefs without threat of punishment from their own government," Fiedorek said.
"We commend the governor for signing into law protections for schools, churches, businesses, and public employees."
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year legalized same-sex marriage. In a wave of state-level legislation, social conservatives have pushed measures seen as harmful to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women, reports Religion News Service.
"This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws," Bryant said. "It does not attempt to challenge federal laws, even those which are in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution, as the Legislature recognizes the prominence of federal law in such limited circumstances."
Rep. Andy Gipson, a Republican sponsor of the Mississippi measure, urged his colleagues on Friday not to be intimidated by national media criticism. He highlighted a poll that showed wide support for the measure in the state. "It's time that we stand up and do the work of the people and protect the freedoms that they enjoy," he said.
The bill includes provisions that go beyond same-sex marriages, according to Human Rights Campaign representatives, a national gay rights advocacy group that has labeled the act appalling.
The legislation allows employers to cite religious conviction in determining workplace policies on dress code, grooming and bathroom and locker access.
Foster parents are now protected in placing lesbian, gay or transgender children into controversial programs seeking to change their sexual orientation, said Ben Needham, director of HRC's "Project One America" to expand lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the U.S. South.
He said the legislation also permits discrimination against single mothers by religious-affiliated organizations, such as homeless shelters and food pantries.
Additionally, state court clerks could seek to be recused from providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, reports Religion News Service.
Some of Mississippi's large employers, such as Nissan North America and MGM Resorts International, have spoken out against legislation that would discriminate.