House panel advances religious practice bill

other_state_govBy Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON – A Mississippi House panel on Tuesday changed and passed a bill that says state and local government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices.

Supporters say the bill would reinforce the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and could have practical applications, such as helping churches that encounter problems with local zoning rules.

Opponents worry, however, that the bill is vaguely worded and could lead to discrimination against gay people or other groups.

Senate Bill 2681 is called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It passed the House Judiciary B Committee and goes the full House for debate in coming days.

The original version of the bill, which passed the Mississippi Senate on Jan. 31, was similar to a measure that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last week.

Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said that by limiting the Mississippi bill to government action and excluding private action, it’s different from the Arizona bill.

“I don’t think it was Arizona before, and I know that with the House version it’s not the Arizona bill,” Gipson, who’s a Baptist minister, said after the bill passed his committee. “It was arguable whether it was doing what people said it did in the Senate version. Just to eliminate that argument, we took it to a clear state action only.”

The bill also would add the motto “In God We Trust” to the Mississippi state seal, as requested by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

Before voting, the Judiciary B Committee heard from the Rev. Telsa DeBerry, pastor of Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs. When DeBerry first tried to open his church in a storefront space on the town square in 2011, he encountered problems with a local zoning law that required the church to get approval of 60 percent of property owners within a quarter-mile radius. He filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the restriction, saying it applied only to churches and not to other types of businesses.

The case went to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and DeBerry said a settlement eventually was reached after more than two years, allowing the church to move forward with renovations.

“That’s a lot of time and a lot of ministry that could’ve been done and a lot of resources that could’ve been utilized for the kingdom as opposed to fighting government entities,” DeBerry said.

He said Opulent Life Church received legal representation from Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group. Republican Sen. Phillip Gandy, of Waynesboro, a Baptist minister who filed the Mississippi bill, said in January that Liberty Institute was “interested in” the bill.

The Christian Action Commission, a lobbying arm of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, also supports the bill.

More than a dozen Mississippi State University students protested against the bill Tuesday at the Capitol. Doctoral student L.B. Wilson called it “lazy legislation” that could be open to broad interpretation if it becomes law. He said he thinks it is intentionally targets gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people for potential discrimination.

“It opens that door wide enough that anyone with a genuinely held religious belief is permitted to discriminate on any grounds without worry that the state might intervene,” Wilson said.