It is, without a doubt, the most extensive legislation of its kind to be passed into law since the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex-marriage decision one year ago. And for the most part, the country has been silent.
Now, a federal judge has blocked the law from going into effect, which was set to happen on July 1. Carlton W. Reeves, a Texas native who grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2010, had some choice words for his fellow Southerners. “In physics, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. In politics, every action has its predictable overreaction,” he wrote. The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, “has led to HB 1523. The next chapter of this back-and-forth has begun.”
Mississippi is not alone in passing protections for religious individuals, clergy, and state employees; during the past year, state legislatures around the country have considered and occasionally passed their own, less extensive versions of this kind of legislation. North Carolina is now fighting the federal government over H.B. 2, a law that prohibits special public accommodations from being made for transgender people, including in public bathrooms. This spring, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would have potentially allowed religious organizations to refuse service to LGBT people. Kentucky recently revised the layout of its marriage license, following the controversy over Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who refused to sign her name or attach the seal of her office to same-sex-marriage licenses. These are just a few of the many states where putative religious-freedom legislation has been drafted in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The difference, though is that those states have all gotten significant national attention, including widespread protests and boycotts, in the wake of their legislation. As The New York Times noted on Friday, “given its lack of Fortune 500 headquarters and its uncontested conservative political landscape, Mississippi did not face the same broad backlash as North Carolina did after passing a law restricting bathroom access for transgender people,” for example.
The law is significant for the state and the country, though, not least because of its parallels to Mississippi’s history. Reeves, who is black, drew a direct line between Mississippi’s new putative religious-freedom law and the state’s racist past. He compared Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant’s statement in opposition to Obergefell to those of the 1950s-era Governor J.P. Colman, who wrote that Brown v. Board of Education “represents an unwarranted invasion of the rights and powers of the states.” That kind of rationale is a distraction; on its face, this new law is discriminatory, he wrote. “A layperson reading about the bill might conclude that it gives a green light to discrimination and prevents accountability for discriminatory acts.”