Meridian Star

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February 28, 2014

Changes proposed to Miss. religious practices bill

MERIDIAN — JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi House panel is proposing changes that might neutralize concerns about whether a religious-freedom bill could lead to discrimination against gay people or other groups.

The House Judiciary B Committee on Thursday discussed Senate Bill 2681, the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

A subcommittee proposes removing parts of the bill that would allow people to refuse service to others based on religious beliefs. If the full committee accepts the changes, the bill would say state government cannot infringe on religious practices.

The original version of the Mississippi bill is similar to a measure that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Wednesday after critics said it could lead to discrimination.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi opposes the original Mississippi bill, saying it would allow discrimination against people based on race, sexual identity, religion and national origin. ACLU attorneys were evaluating the proposed changes.

The House committee has until Tuesday to vote on whether to advance the bill to the full House. Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, asked members — particularly those who are attorneys — to study the proposed changes before he decides whether to bring the bill up for a vote.

"We do believe there are more questions, more research and study to be done on this," Gipson said. "And we want to be sure that ... whatever we do is a well-reasoned approach."

The Mississippi Economic Council issued a statement Thursday praising the proposed changes in the bill but not taking a stance on whether it should pass.

"As the state chamber of commerce for a state that has proven its hospitable and business-friendly approach, MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing non-discrimination policies impacting their customers and employees," the council's statement said.

Similar religious-freedom bills were filed this year in several states, including Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee. A bill was withdrawn Wednesday in Ohio, and similar measures are stalled in Idaho and Kansas.

When the Mississippi Senate debated and passed its bill Jan. 31, there was no mention of whether the measure would allow discrimination against gay people or other groups. Rather, the debate focused on whether there's a need for a state law to spell out the freedom to practice religion that's already guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Senators amended the bill to add "In God We Trust" to the state seal, and passed the bill 48-0. Gov. Phil Bryant said during his State of the State speech Jan. 22 that he wants to add the phrase to the state seal. He said Wednesday that he had hoped legislators would deal with the seal in a separate bill without tying it to other issues.

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Online: Senate Bill 2681: http://bit.ly/1hheTXI

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

 

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