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Mississippi’s LGBT Community, Objectors Locked in Rights Struggle

On several occasions in the last two years, Bailey McDaniel and her friends have experienced discrimination in Starkville, Mississippi, from businesses and individuals who refuse to provide services to LGBT people.

McDaniel, a junior at Mississippi State University (MSU), has not been a silent observer, however. She has become an activist and president of the LGBTQ+ Union at MSU. “I personally know LGBT students who have been kicked out of local establishments and the university didn’t really have any response to it,” she tells Diverse, adding that she also has had similar experiences.

Bailey McDaniel, a junior at Mississippi State University, is president of the school’s LGBTQ+ Union. (Photo courtesy of Bailey McDaniel)Bailey McDaniel, a junior at Mississippi State University, is president of the school’s LGBTQ+ Union. (Photo courtesy of Bailey McDaniel)

On July 1, a controversial law was to go into effect in Mississippi, providing legal protection to people who deny service to members of the LGBT community based on religious or moral beliefs. Opponents of the law say it reinforces previous legislation that already allows open discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation; supporters say it protects the rights of people who oppose homosexuality for religious or moral reasons.

However, a U.S. district court judge struck down the measure on June 30, blocking its implementation. Judge Carlton Reeves declared the measure unconstitutional and called it “state-sanctioned discrimination.”

For the state’s higher education institutions, the law has raised questions about whether current policies of diversity and inclusion on campuses will be impacted by the new law.

House Bill 1523, signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in April as the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” is the latest measure in alleged anti-LGBT legislation.

This is all part of an ongoing battle in the state. Two years ago, the Mississippi Legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows individuals or businesses to deny service to people if providing that service goes against their religious or moral beliefs. This year’s law ensures that those who discriminate on “sincerely held” religious or moral grounds will be immune from legal liability.

The latest measure was introduced in the aftermath of the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage and the subsequent refusal of some public employees throughout the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Schools’ stands

As HB 1523 takes effect just before the start of the 2016-17 academic year, some of Mississippi’s colleges and universities have reaffirmed their nondiscrimination policies. These statements have ranged from mild to defiant; some institutions have not commented on the issue.

The presidents of the state’s three largest universities issued carefully worded declarations of inclusion.

“I am happy to confirm the University’s continuing commitment to diversity and inclusion, as our path to the top includes a broad spectrum of diverse individuals who challenge each of us to be our best selves and to carry out the mission and vision of The University of Southern Mississippi,” said President Rodney Bennett, the first African-American president of a predominantly White university in the state.

Bennett said he released the statement after being asked to do so by the executive committee of the Faculty Senate in response to the bill’s passage. That “broad spectrum” is detailed in USM’s nondiscrimination policy and includes sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Jeffrey Vitter, chancellor of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), released a letter reiterating that institution’s mission to serve “a diverse community of different religions, ages, political perspectives, physical abilities, races, sexual orientations, gender expressions, nationalities, cultures, fields of study, and other characteristics.”

Meanwhile, at Mississippi State University, President Mark Keenum went further and addressed “concerns” surrounding the measure: “… new legislation has been signed into law in our state that raises significant concerns about the culture of inclusion and diversity in Mississippi.”

Referring to MSU’s Diversity Strategic Plan, which he spearheaded within the last few years, Keenum said, “MSU is committed to creating and maintaining a campus community that reflects the rich diversity of this nation — an environment in which differences are welcomed, embraced, and valued.”

A more strident stance was taken by Dr. Robert Pearigen, president of the private, religious-affiliated Millsaps College.

“I am increasingly concerned that the bill leads inextricably to discriminatory practices and will not meet the constitutional challenges that lie ahead,” he said.

Some faculty members have been outspoken in their opposition. Before the bill was signed into law, 30 faculty members at Millsaps signed a letter that was an outright condemnation of the law.

“We deplore the use of religion as a reason for discriminating against people, here and around the world. We deeply disagree with the many leaders of Mississippi who approved and voted for this discrimination; if the bill is adopted, we look forward to the day when it is struck down by fair-minded courts,” the Millsaps faculty members wrote.

Court challenges

Those court challenges have been swift. A flurry of lawsuits followed the governor’s signing of the bill, with plaintiffs including a same-sex couple; the ACLU; religious groups; and a university professor, Dr. Susan Hrostowski, an associate professor of social work at USM and an Episcopal priest.

Hrostowski contends in her complaint that HB 1523 “demeans the very personhood of gay people and clearly demonstrates the legislature’s intent to create a religious accommodation that returns gay and lesbian Mississippians to second-class citizenship.”

A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the State Registrar of Vital Statistics points out that the law is targeting LGBT people because it refers only to same-sex couples, and not to people who have sex outside of marriage, although some religions oppose this, too.

“This is a law that never needed to happen,” Dr. Douglas Bristol, an associate professor of history and the newly elected chair of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Institutional Diversity Committee, said in a phone interview just days before the law was blocked. “There wasn’t a law that protected LGBTQ people in Mississippi. It was already legal to discriminate against us. That’s why this law is so ridiculous.”

Bristol says HB 1523 “does have the effect of emboldening some people to discriminate.” Mississippi is one of 28 states where it is legal to fire people or refuse to rent housing based on sexual orientation.

“We don’t have a lot of control over the community,” he says, so unfortunately students or university employees who are discriminated against have little recourse. “One thing that’s been discussed is that, perhaps if we have a system where people can make complaints for discrimination, the university would ban them from getting university contracts,” Bristol noted. He also pointed out that Southern Miss, which has 34.3 percent racial minorities, recently hired its first diversity officer.

The federal court decision was applauded by activists, including the Mississippi Center for Justice and civil rights attorney Rob McDuff.

In a news release from the Center, McDuff said, “The federal court’s decision recognizes that religious freedom can be preserved along with equal rights for all people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.  …  It is now time for all of us, as Mississippians, to move beyond division and come together in the ongoing pursuit of a society that respects the rights of everyone.”

Jackson State and Alcorn State universities, the two largest historically Black institutions in Mississippi, did not put forth statements regarding HB 1523 and declined Diverse’s request for comment.

However, the Jackson City Council, the legislative body for the state capital, passed a unanimous resolution restating its own antidiscrimination policy and denouncing the law, warning that it “could potentially sanction overt acts of discrimination against Mississippi citizens or visitors of certain sexual or gender preference.”

In Starkville, McDaniel shares that concern with dozens of other activists who have taken their views into the streets with protests and demonstrations. However, despite the politics surrounding LGBTQ rights in the state, “We have made progress,” McDaniel says. “The majority of businesses are very welcoming.”

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