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Another Puff on the Crack Pipe of Bigotry: Mississippi’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Law

Two bikers kiss on the steps of the Mississippi capitol
A gay Mississippi biker couple kisses atop the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol Building in Jackson, Miss. They were participating in the March 27, 2013 Jackson Vigil for Marriage Equality, set to coincide with the U.S. Supreme Court's hearing of gay marriage cases for the first time. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Deep South Voice or its affiliates.

Nick Wilgus
Nick Wilgus

Already the most religious state in the nation, Mississippi recently passed Senate Bill 2681, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or SB 2681 (which some are referring to rather unkindly as BS-2681). This legislation will not only add the words “In God We Trust” to the state seal, it will protect religious folks from … well, there’s the rub: The wording of the bill is so deliberately lawyer-friendly that only someone with a PhD in sophistry from Harvard Law could possibly fathom its real meaning.

Since it was sponsored by a Baptist preacher (Andy Gipson) and fawned over by the American Family Association and Tony Perkin’s Family Research Council (seems Mr. Perkins was invited to the signing ceremony with other “faith leaders”), it can’t be good for anyone they don’t like (which is just about everyone but themselves and their fan base, from what I can determine). It’s certainly not good news for Mississippi’s gay community and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the bill was directed against them, as were similar bills in other states, including the one recently vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.

The official “title” of the bill states that SB2681 is:

An act to enact the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act; to provide that state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion; to prescribe the contents of the great seal of the State of Mississippi.

We are left to believe that “religious freedom” needs to be “restored,” or that somehow or other the Christian denizens of the Magnolia state are being “burdened” by the government. Yet there are no documented cases of any church being shut down by the government and neither do we find any documented case of a believer forced at gunpoint to skip his Wednesday evening service. No pastor or priest has been jailed for speaking his or her mind and not one good Christian boy or girl has been tossed to lions and hyenas for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods.

Religious freedom is very much alive and well in Mississippi and Christians enjoy first class privileges and rights. Every elected official, from the governor to the sheriff to the county supervisors to the dogcatcher, is Christian. They hold all the power in this state, make the laws, pull the strings. In fact, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.”
So, why the need to restore “religious freedom” in a state like Mississippi where all the government officials are Christian? Why ask long-suffering citizens to foot the bill to not only draft and pass this exercise in legislative pointlessness, but also defend it when challenges are inevitably brought against it?

Seems some Christians these days are feeling persecuted. Expressing what is becoming a common sentiment, Michelle Bachmann recently said she was tired of gay people bullying Americans.

Dr. Jimmy Porter, the executive director of the Christian Action Commission – the lobbying arm of the state’s Southern Baptist convention — wrote a letter to Mississippi legislators and threatened them with dire consequences if they failed to pass SB2681. His letter said, in part, “Faith families are being discriminated against all over the United States, even here.  Why should they be denied protection under state law?” 
“Even here,” Porter says about Mississippi.

Even here!

But … where? And who? And what?

Apparently laws like SB2681 are designed to protect Christians from gay people, or to at least make it legal to discriminate against them. Mississippi’s law seems to indicate the possibility that even if the federal government grants rights to gay people, the state can refuse those rights if it can demonstrate that honoring such rights would “burden” their religious sensibilities. Or something.

As a gay man who is now fifty years old, I know a thing or two about persecution.

I’ll give you a few examples:

On a Christmas Eve many years ago in Kansas City, I was walking by a hotel when several men drinking beer on a balcony saw me. Shouting homophobic slurs, they hurled beer bottles at me as I tried to run on the ice-covered sidewalk to get away. As I struggled in this fashion while dodging exploding bottles, I was treated to a chorus of laughter.

The next summer, returning to my car after attending a Tracy Chapman concert, I was set on by a group of thugs who beat me up because I “looked like a faggot.” I didn’t go to the police because, at that time, the police would not have done anything about it except embarrass me further. To this day, I drive like an old lady because the very last thing I want is to be at the mercy of a police officer.

Another group of hooligans used to follow me as I walked to work, at times jamming on their breaks and screaming “FAGGOT!” as they jumped out of the car. They never did chase me; they simply enjoyed watching me run for my life.

A Catholic religious brother in my early twenties, I was asked to leave my religious order after I admitted to being gay. Although perfectly celibate and obedient to every rule and rubric, just the fact that I would admit to being gay was enough to see to my dismissal.

During the beginning of the AIDS crisis, I watched in helpless disbelief as friends around me died while the president of the United States could not even bring himself to say the word “AIDS.” I also watched in horror as a group calling itself the Westboro Baptist Church from next door in Topeka began to picket the funerals of AIDS victims carrying signs proclaiming “GOD HATES FAGS” and “FAGS GO TO HELL.” Despite our complaints, we were told that nothing could be done about it because these good Baptist souls were simply exercising their rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

After a long overseas career in journalism, I returned to the states and became the news editor for a small newspaper in a small town in Mississippi. It quickly became apparent to me that having a gay man for their editor was not at all what readers wanted, and I quit the job for fear of being fired.

Scratch the surface of any gay person and you will uncover a wealth of similar stories and incidents. We have been kicked out of homes, families, churches. We have been laughed at, mocked, shamed, silenced, demonized, beaten up. We have been passed over for promotions, had doors slammed in our faces, fired from our jobs.

Much — if not all — of the bigotry and prejudice directed against us was and is fueled by Christians, particularly Bible-thumping conservatives. Tune in to American Family Radio on any given day and you will be treated to an endless bombardment of myth and misinformation as gay people are routinely demonized as diseased, dangerous and not all that dissimilar to Nazis. We are told that gay parenting is a form of child abuse and that “homosexuality led to Hitler, the storm troopers and six million dead Jews.”

If any group of people in the state of Mississippi needs protection, it would a group like the gay community, and not the state’s monolithic majority of Christians who are under no threat from anyone at all.

Persecution is not being forced to serve a cup of coffee to a lesbian couple  you don’t want to serve because you think their relationship is “icky.” Persecution is kicking a monk out of his monastery because he’s gay, or firing a good employee simply for being gay, or picketing their funeral and carrying signs stating that “FAGS GO TO HELL.”

Of all the states in the Union, Mississippi ought to know better. I would go much further: Of all the states in the Union, Mississippi ought to be the first to stand up for a minority group in its midst. That would show the world that Mississippi has indeed “moved on.”

Rather than leading the way, Mississippi once more looks to its past for inspiration.

If you need to step on the neck of a gay person in order to “step up” for Christ (and apparently a lot of you do), SB2681 was a great victory for you. For the rest of us, it’s yet one more example of Mississippi refusing to step away from the crack pipe of bigotry and prejudice for which it is so justly infamous.

Nick Wilgus is the best-selling fiction author of numerous books, including the “Shaking the Sugar Tree” series and “Raise It Up.” You can find him on Facebook @WilgusWorld.

Read more about “Religious Liberty” laws in our #RightToDiscriminate collection here.