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Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice: SB 2681 out of the state’s “Jim Crow past”

A former Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice says a controversial bill — SB 2681 — is unnecessary. The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act is headed to the House floor for debate after it advanced out of committee Tuesday.

The state Senate passed the bill unanimously in late January. Opponents of the bill say the language will allow businesses to discriminate against minority groups — in particular LGBTQ people — if they claim “sincere religious belief” as a legal basis.

Oliver Diaz, a former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice and former member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, believes the bill is vague and over-broad.

“The First Amendment gives the public the right to a freedom of religion,” said Diaz. “However, when you go into the public sphere, you give up some of those rights.”

Diaz went on to compare the bill in Mississippi and similar bills in other states to the same type of Jim Crow legislation in the 1960s. “These are the same people making the same arguments while trying to push the same legislation through,” he said. “Cooler heads have prevailed in Arizona and other states.”

“Apparently, we don’t have the more moderate thinkers in this state,” he added.

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

“They tried to sneak it through on the back of the state seal legislation,” said Diaz. “That’s the oldest legislative trick in the book. Attach a controversial bill to a widely popular bill and hope that it goes unnoticed.”

However, the public caught on quickly. The bill was widely contested by multiple civil rights and LGBTQ organizations. Facebook pages organized protests in days.

A similar bill was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last month. Currently, eleven other states are considering similar legislation; Utah, Tennessee, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Oregon, Ohio, Missouri, Idaho and Georgia all have some form of the bill in progress.

“I think the national coverage of the Arizona bill brought the legislation to the public’s attention,” said Diaz, who also credited the rise of the Information Age.

“People are able to read the legislative language like they haven’t been able to previously,” he said. “Even five years ago, you had to go to the Jackson and request the bill. Now, it is online and available at any time.”

April Grayson, Community Relations Coordinator for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, condemned the bill in a telephone interview.

“Right now, in 2014, fifty years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the Mississippi legislature is debating a measure that would give businesses a license to discriminate against their customers,” Grayson said.

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, based at the University of Mississippi, issued a statement Monday calling on lawmakers to reject the bill:

“Supporters of this bill argue that a person’s exercise of religion is somehow ‘burdened’ by having to do business with someone if it goes against their beliefs. Thankfully, the U.S. Constitution relieves any burden: The Constitution says that a person’s ability to operate according to his religion stops the minute he or she ventures into the commercial market to make a profit. Establishing the ability to pick and choose who is worthy of service creates a dangerous, slippery slope. Furthermore, laws that single out a group of citizens for unfair treatment are completely antithetical to our nation’s core values. Our representatives in Jackson should be focused on making it easier for people to get ahead – not creating roadblocks for hardworking people who want nothing more than to be productive, participatory members of society.”

Billy Miller, an attorney and Democratic Party activist on the Gulf Coast, voiced some concern as to how the unanimous, bipartisan vote in the state senate happened.

“The Mississippi Democratic Party is essentially conservative,” said Miller. “It seems that politicians are not going to take a stand against their faith based constituents.”

The anticipated passage bill has caused liberal activists to anticipate legal action if it is passed and signed into law.

“There has to be a constitutional injury to take legal action,” said Miller. “Considering the language [of the bill], I don’t foresee that taking too long.”