Mississippi Senate's religious freedom bill under scrutiny

JACKSON, MS (WDAM) - The Mississippi Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2681 on January 31, which will enact the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act and add "In God We Trust" to the state seal.

"We're so excited that it has passed the Senate," said Senator Joey Fillingane (R- Dist. 41). "I'm sure that our House friends are going to take it up."

The bill states that "state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person's right to exercise of religion." But this has come under scrutiny by some who say that this opens the doors for individuals to legally discriminate against another individual based on religious views.

In the bill, "burden" includes withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities.

SB 2681 is being compared to Arizona's religious freedom bill, Senate Bill 1062, which has come under fire by national media outlets for opening the door to allow discrimination toward the LGBT community and others if those specific lifestyles do not align with one's religious beliefs. The Arizona bill was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer Wednesday night.

"I disagree completely," said Fillingane when asked if this bill, which he coauthored, leads the way for lawful discrimination. "I don't agree with what Arizona has done. I don't see the similarity at all."

Senator David Blount (D- Dist. 29) posted a status to his Facebook page Wednesday that stated his misunderstanding of SB 2681.

"I was not aware (nor was any other Senator or interest group or citizen that I have talked to aware) of this intention or possible result," the post stated.  "I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. Obviously, I should have (all of us should have) been aware of this. I have already talked with House members about removing language relating to legalized discrimination in SB 2681."

The bill was originally presented only as a religious freedom legislation, but after a Senate amendment, a second section was added that would add the slogan "In God We Trust" to the Mississippi state seal.

"I felt that it was just a good time to put it in there," said Senator John Polk (R- Dist. 44), who was the author of the amendment. "We've got two ideas with one bill, and it just made good sense to do it that way."

When asked if the bill's intention was to allow discrimination based on religious beliefs, Polk quickly said no.

"If it had, I would not have been the one that presented it on the floor," said Polk. "I couldn't have done that. I believe in religious freedom, but I also believe in freedom.

The bill will now move to committee before it makes its way to the House.

Copyright 2014 WDAM. All rights reserved