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LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: At the Liberty Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Mississippi, Phillip Gandy has been pastor for 24 years.  He says God and his congregation wanted him to run for the State Senate because …

SENATOR PHILLIP GANDY: There are some real encroachments on religious freedom in America. Since, say, the sixties we began to see a feeling by people of faith, primarily Christians, that there is a, maybe a hostility that has developed over the years toward Christianity.

SEVERSON: So Mississippi State Senator Gandy, with strong support from his congregation, sponsored and pushed through a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA. It’s similar in purpose to a controversial bill that was rejected by Arizona’s governor.

Religious-Freedom-post01David Masci is senior researcher at the Pew Center’s Project on Religion and Public Life.

DAVID MASCI: What RFRA does essentially is make it very difficult for the government, or make it very hard for the government to prevail when the government, when a government statute runs up against religious practice.

SEVERSON: Senator Gandy says the kind of protection he envisions for instance would be when zoning regulations prevent the church from building in a particular neighborhood. But critics argue it is a protection that simply is not needed.  A solution in search of a problem.

Jennifer Riley Collins heads the Mississippi ACLU.

JENNIFER RILEY COLLINS: The proponents of the bill said that they were restoring Christian values and protecting Christianity. But I will tell you that I don’t think that they restored anything. In fact, I think that they regressed the state of Mississippi.

GANDY: The law was designed to protect people of faith from having their religious freedoms violated.

SEVERSON: The senator offered a hypothetical...

Religious-Freedom-post02GANDY: Let’s just suppose that a law was passed that said that you had to drive to Jackson, Mississippi, to get your license, and the only day that you could get your driver’s license would be on Sunday. That would be a law that would unnecessarily burden people of faith.

SEVERSON: Senator Gandy says the subject of same-sex marriage never entered the debate. He says church leaders from around the country supported the bill. But there were quite a number who did not.

JIM WINKLER (President and General Secretary, National Council of Churches): I wonder if it's not a low-level form of hysteria that’s sweeping sections of the country.

SEVERSON: Jim Winkler heads the National Council of Churches, comprising about a hundred-thousand local churches with about 40 million members, although not all agree on same-sex marriage or on other issues.

WINKLER: I guess I kind of view it as a rearguard action by those who are concerned by changes taking place in society, by the growing number of laws that protect LGBT people, those who have same-sex marriages.

GANDY: I don’t think that this is reactionary toward any particular thing that’s happening in society. I think it’s just a desire that people of faith have so that we would be able to practice our faith without the Religious-Freedom-post03government imposing upon us burdens that would limit that. Unnecessary burdens.

SEVERSON: The state's Chamber of Commerce supported Senate Bill 2681, but at least 150 Jackson businesses decidedly don’t. They have signed up to display a window sticker that says “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling.” In other words, we don’t care what your lifestyle is. Hair salon owner Eddie Outlaw is one the business leaders behind “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling.”

EDDIE OUTLAW: Was sort of a way to let the rest of the nation know that there are progressives here that are opposed to what’s happening, that we fought against it, we did some damage, but we didn’t stop it.

COLLINS: Mississippians, are accepting of same-sex partners. They may not be accepting of same-sex marriage, but they’re accepting of people’s expression of their own sexual orientation.

SEVERSON: Mississippi’s constitution bans same-sex marriage, so many argue that a state RFRA wasn’t needed in the first place. Jennifer Riley Collins with the ACLU says there was no outcry for a new law, except from some of the legislators themselves.

Religious-Freedom-post04COLLINS: All I kept hearing was they wanted to promote Christian values. And I will tell you that that is where we are concerned as the ACLU, because not one, no one religion should be promoted ahead of other religions. Everyone has the right to believe or not to believe.

SEVERSON: In 1993, President Clinton signed into law a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A few years later, the Supreme Court said that law only applied to federal statutes, and several states quickly passed their own laws. It's such laws that were the basis for the proposed legislation the Arizona governor recently vetoed, and the one Senator Gandy introduced.

COLLINS: The original legislation that was proposed was terrible. It basically was a license to discriminate, just flat out. I will tell you, through the public outcry and people coming together and standing together, the legislation went through several amendments. But unfortunately through some political maneuvering it was kept alive.

SEVERSON: Mississippi now becomes the nineteenth state to enact its own religious practice law. Several other states are considering similar legislation.

MASCI: There’s still very great support for it, at least from what we see of elected officials in the Republican Party. And, not surprisingly, most of the states that have passed RFRA laws are in the Midwest and in the South, places that tend to be more socially conservative.

Religious-Freedom-post05SEVERSON: The issue here, which may be as big or even bigger than same-sex marriage is the fear of encroaching government, underscored by a Tea Party bus caravan that showed up at the capital while we were there.

(to Senator Gandy): Is it aimed at government?

GANDY: It’s aiming at keeping government in its place.

SEVERSON: There’s a mistrust of government?

GANDY: I think so.

WINKLER: I don’t have a doubt that in some congregations, maybe many congregations, that ideology gets promoted. It’s interesting to me just as, not only as a Christian but as a citizen, how strongly this anti-government attitude has grown up over the years.

SEVERSON: The ACLU’s Jennifer Riley Collins also worries about government encroachment but from the legislative branch.

COLLINS: I’m also a Christian. I pray to God, I read the Bible on a daily basis. I, however, do not think that my religion should trump anybody else’s religion. And no government should ever be able to promote one religion above another.

SEVERSON: Senator and Pastor Gandy remains proud of his legislation. He sees it as a legitimate practice of his faith.

GANDY: There is an environment in America that want to allow people of faith to practice their faith within their church houses, but not carry that faith into their real life. Well, you can’t do that if you’re a Christian. As a Christian, my faith identifies who I am, and it identifies what I do.

SEVERSON: Mississippi’s new law kicks in the first of July.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly this is Lucky Severson in Jackson, Mississippi.

Religious Freedom in Mississippi

Baptist pastor and Mississippi state senator Phillip Gandy recently sponsored and the legislature passed a religious freedom restoration act “to protect people of faith from having their religious freedoms violated,” says Gandy. But others see it as an attempt to legalize discrimination under the pretext of religion, or to insulate the state’s Christian residents from the changes in LGBT civil rights occurring across the country. “It’s aiming at keeping government in its place,” Gandy explains. But National Council of Churches president and general secretary Jim Winkler describes it as “a rearguard action by those concerned by changes taking place in society.”

  • RayJacksonMS2

    Why was hate group leader Tony Perkins at the closed door, drawn curtains singing of this law, if it wasn’t about legalizing discrimination?

  • cipher

    Mississippi – yet another state that clearly fails to understand how irrelevant it is to the rest of the country (economically as well as culturally).

    Also, a lot of people at that Tea party rally – almost as many as showed up in Washington to depose Obama. ;-)

  • JD Turner

    First I would like to ask you a question, Have you ever been to MS & explored/experienced MS? Do you actually know or have encountered any Mississippians? I’m guessing that you haven’t. Had you experienced MS, I believe that you wouldn’t have made the stereotypical ignorant comments. Does MS have a lot of down falls & faults (like other states), YES! We will admit that in a heart beat. Do we have a negative past that we are constantly fighting & dealing with still everyday (like other states) YES! We will admit that as well. Are there still people here with archaic political & personal mindsets (like in EVERY state)? YES, we will even admit that. Does that apply and/or describe all Mississippians, NO! Are there Mississippians who are trying to fight to change this State for the better of all people, YES!! You said that MS is irrelevant economically and culturally, well that dear sir, I will say – you are mistaken. To date (even after the southern part of MS was pretty much wiped away by the worse Hurricane – named Katrina) we still rank in the top 3 EVERY year as being the most charitable giving state in America & the World. MS also still is the leader in the WORLD for pond-raised catfish and the largest aquaculture industry in the US, which is a multi-million dollar industry. MS has also had major positive impact on the medical (trillion dollar) industry, seeing that the first heart, kidney & lung transplants were done here, along with medical books that are still be used world wide that were written here, by a Mississippian. We have also had recent success in the UM Medical research dealing with AIDS. Also, we also have a billion dollar auto industry here. Now culturally, have you ever heard of anything called the “Blues”…America’s Music, yeah, that is from MS. Oh, those Blues also created Rock & Roll & I also am assuming you have heard of Elvis. The music business is billion dollar business which include a huge amount of Mississippians. MS also has had & still has a huge influence in Sports (multi-billion dollar business). Plus there is Oprah. Also, have you heard of the International Ballet Company, well the only place in the US where the competition is held is in MS. So to go with all the musicians & performers, there are literary geniuses (which some are Pulitzer Prize winners), authors, movie writers/producers, artists/sculptors, Rhode Scholars, small companies/agencies like FED-EX, Ingalls (build navy ships) and NASA, oh and of course, our Native American, French & Spanish cultures. I’m sorry to inform you but MS is probably one of the most culturally diverse & enriched States in the US. All the above is just a portion of what MS has & does offer economically & culturally.
    Now my best & friendly advice to you cipher, before you try to berate an entire State & all of her people, you might want to educate yourself on them first. This way you will not publicly show your ignorance, intolerance & your irrelevance to the world. Maybe you need to travel more & actually experience America. But until then, I hope you have a great day & bless your heart.

  • cipher

    I couldn’t make it all the way through your incoherent rant. What you wrote is just a lot of noise. Mississippi is within the top five states that take more in federal funding than they give back in taxes.

    If there are progressives in Mississippi, we can airlift them out. Shouldn’t take longer than an afternoon.

  • JJ Walker

    Sadly, regional bias and prejudices are on the increase in America. The ramped up efforts to discredit the South in every possible way is a form of bigotry.

  • Robert W.

    Please just stop talking about what you don’t (apparently even want to) understand. The state’s roughly half Republican, half Democratic; the population’s nearly 40% African American; and a number of our cities have just passed resolutions affirming the value and equality of all people, resolutions pointedly including LGBT Mississippians. Stop the smug scapegoating.

  • cipher
  • Katstiles

    Senator Phillip Gandy should reacquaint himself with Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States. I was under the impression that Congressmen and Senators took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Sounds like religious freedom is already protected. Laws like the one supported by Senator Gandy remind me of the Voter ID laws passed in red states. These laws claim to right a wrong, when in fact their aim is to take away rights from others!

  • Lacey

    No one’s arguing that we’re a red state but that doesn’t mean we’re not nearly half democratic as far as the population goes. Voting districts, among other things, help keep us pretty firmly in the red but we’re making huge pushes. The stickers from our non-discrimination campaign are selling worldwide because, shock of all shocks, we’re not the only place in the world with bigots. We don’t need to be airlifted out. We need to stay and keep changing things here.

  • Ellen

    Yes, I have been to Mississippi. I was born in Alabama. They are two states I’d just as soon not visit ever again. I find that the majority of people are bigoted and not too well informed on the world.
    One thing I will never forget is driving thru Mississippi one time and this car came barreling around us, going very fast. It was a Black man and a red convertible. We soon stopped for gas and a man in the gas station said, ”There was a wreck up ahead. He is hurt but is alive. If it’d been a White man, he’d have died. Too bad it didn’t happen to this man”. I have found this is a general attitude in Mississippi. As I have Blacks married into my family, I would have liked to kick this man. His ignorance and bigotry is beyond words.
    All people should be treated equally. Oh! I have a cousin who is gay.
    No-do not care for Mississippi.

  • Jenny

    You can make all the laws you want that says equality. If you do not apply these laws to all people, why bother? The hate and demeaning of people is still there.

  • TBascom

    from what’s said in this news article, i don’t see how gandy’s law favors christianity over other faiths. it seems to be all-inclusive: an effort to prevent government from pushing religion (any religion, or all religions) out of the public square. that is, of course, also 1/2 the purpose of the first amendment’s anti-establishment clause (the other half being to prevent government from establishing a religion as a state-sponsored entity).

    any application of the law that favors one religion over another should be opposed. any application of the law that favors public religious expression over public religious suppression should be supported.

  • Michaela

    Southern Baptists seem to ignore that there is any church but them. Pretend it isn’t there and it will go away type mentality.