LAUREL, MS (WDAM) - Sanderson Farms, Inc. the second largest industrial manufacturing company in Mississippi and a Fortune 1000 company, publicly stated it is against Mississippi's Religious Liberty Accommodations Act or House Bill 1523.
Sanderson Farms, which is headquartered in Laurel, is one of 11 prominent Mississippi businesses and individuals included in a brief filed with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans arguing "HB 1523 not only demeans and discriminates against" Mississippi's gay, lesbian and transgender population, but "stigmatizes the entire state and will cause lasting harm to Mississippi's economy - driving down the state's GDP, deterring business development and expansion, and costing the state jobs."
"In economic development, we do as well as our state and communities do, so we want them to do well because as they do well, we do well," said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer of Sanderson Farms.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the bill from becoming a law in July, but Cockrell said the negative economic impacts of HB 1523, which allows businesses to refuse marriage-related services based on "the sincerely held religious beliefs" that marriage is between one man and one woman, people shouldn't have sex outside of those marriages and that gender is decided at birth, are already being felt.
"It already has had an impact of Mississippi," Cockrell said. "There have been concerts canceled, and tourists quit coming to Mississippi in some respects. To us though, the most important is the things you can't measure. You know, how many nurses and doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers decided not to even look at Mississippi because of this? And we'll never know what the answer to that is or how many companies just quietly struck Mississippi off of their list. We'll never know that."
The brief cited a study Texas Association of Business that estimates a similar "religious liberties" law there could cause "losses in Texas' GDP ranging from approximately $1 billion to $8.5 billion and a loss of as many as 185,000 jobs," and "there is reason to believe that Mississippi will experience similar economic losses if HB 1523 is enacted." Cockrell said he has already seen similar legislation in other states cause major problems.
"North Carolina had a bill that was not exactly like this one, but it was similar, and their fallout has been, in some respects, larger than Mississippi, but it's the same principle."
Aside from the economic impact, Cockrell said the bill goes against the Sanderson Farms' values.
"We have 13,000 employees in five states," Cockrell said. "We don't know how many of them were impacted by this bill, but even if it was one, it's important for us to protect their constitutional rights where we can. Our vision states that we treat each person with dignity, and if someone is impeded from exercising their rights, that's not respectful. And it was important to us to make sure our that our voice was heard."
The bottom line for Cockrell and Sanderson Farms is House Bill 1523 is unconstitutional.
"There are good people of all religious faith who believe that the Supreme Court was correct in this ruling, and there are good people of all religious faiths that believe it was incorrect," Cockrell said. "To us, what is Constitutional Law 101 is that the state can't pick and choose one religious belief over another and prefer it through legislation. That's unconstitutional, and it was important to us that our voice be heard in that respect."
Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the bill in April, disagrees completely.
"This is a good law that was democratically enacted and is perfectly constitutional," Bryant said in a statement. "The district court's decision is ripe for reversal and we are confident that, as this case moves ahead, it will be reversed. The people of Mississippi have the right to ensure that all of our citizens are free to peacefully live and work without fear of being punished for their sincerely held beliefs. And as governor, it is my duty to uphold my oath to defend the people of Mississippi and the laws passed by those entrusted to represent them."
On the contrary, Cockrell said the best outcome for both Sanderson Farms and the state is for the Fifth Circuit Judge to uphold Reeves' ruling and keep the law from being enacted.
"Oh the best solution would be for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to agree with the Federal District Judge who's already ruled it unconstitutional," Cockrell said. "It would be great if the state would spend money – you know, it's spending money defending this legislation, and some would question whether or not that's money well spent."
The other parties included in the brief are former U.S. Ambassador John N. Palmer, Sr., Jack Reed, Jr., William A. Percy III, Tim C. Medley, Talamieka Brice, Sharpe & Wise, PLLC, Kelly Kyle, Hal Caudell, Amber and Jessica Kirkendoll.