Mississippi is the latest state to pass its version of ‘turn away the gays’ legislation.
Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which goes into effect this July, allows restaurants to ban customers whose lives don’t align with the owners’ religious values. While the broadly written law doesn’t specifically mention gays and lesbians, it’s widely understood, in this heavily conservative Christian state, that it’s a license to discriminate against gays in the name of religion.
Where civil rights fit in
The Civil Rights Act protects us from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, and there are other laws that prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, or disability. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act prohibits discrimination of sexual orientation in the workplace, but otherwise there are no federal laws that protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
Civil rights of restaurant owners
Restaurants are privately-owned businesses, which guarantees certain rights to their owners. They have to comply with federal laws banning recognized forms of discrimination because they provide what the law calls a ‘public accommodation,’ but it gives them a lot of latitude as long as they don’t step on the rights of a protected class. That means that a restaurant can refuse to serve anyone who wears a pro-Israel t-shirt as long as they don’t ban Jews, or they can have a policy that bans sagging pants if they otherwise serve young black men. Unlike blacks and Jews, gays and lesbians don’t constitute a protected class. It doesn’t matter what they wear; they can just be sent packing.
Most states don’t have laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination by restaurants and other public accommodations, but Mississippi’s RFRA goes a step further by explicitly codifying the bigotry. It protects restaurants and their owners from lawsuits if they refuse service to gays, and it permits hate speech against individuals and their lifestyle. It even adds a provision that’s like a children’s version of the Act, forbidding schools to discipline students for expressing anti-gay views either verbally or through written assignments.
LGBT activists wonder: Is this the making of a new Jim Crow-style era?
Along with Mississippi, Republican lawmakers in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Kansas have recently introduced their own so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills giving citizens the right to segregate their businesses against LGBT Americans. All of these RFRA bills popped up in just the last four months, suggesting a concerted, national effort by the religious right to push back against the movement toward expanded rights for same-sex couples. A total of 31 states have already taken a stand against what they call a ‘substantial burden’ placed on their citizens’ religious practices.