By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The controversial Religious Freedom Act is going to conference, but a key Senate negotiator indicated Thursday he is not interested in keeping the proposal alive as a study.
The legislation is designed to protect a person from being forced to engage in a practice that “burdened” his or her religious rights. After it passed the Senate, it attracted national attention. Some claimed the proposal might allow a business to refuse services to a gay couple.
The House amended the bill to establish “the Religious Freedoms Study Committee to be charged with the responsibility of studying and preparing a report regarding proposed legislation that protects the religious freedoms of the citizens of the state of Mississippi.”
But instead of accepting the House changes in the legislation, the Senate on Thursday invited conference where leaders from both chambers will have an opportunity to hammer out a compromise.
Negotiators have a Monday deadline to reach agreement.
Senate Universities and Colleges Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, whose committee is where the bill originated, said after it was sent to conference, “a study is not on my agenda.”
Said Polk, who most likely will be the key Senate negotiator on the proposal: “We either need to reach a resolution or let it die.”
The issue came to the forefront after critics maintained the bill was similar to an Arizona proposal vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer in large part because of concerns expressed by business interests who did not want the state to be seen as discriminating against gay people.
After the bill passed the Mississippi Senate, the Mississippi Economic Council released a statement, saying “as the state chamber of commerce for a state that has proven its hospitable and business-friendly approach, MEC opposes efforts that would intentionally or unintentionally prevent Mississippi businesses from implementing and enforcing nondiscrimination policies impacting their customers and employees.”
MEC officials said the group had no position on the bill other than hoping it aligns with its official position on the issue.
Some religious groups, such as the Christian Action Commission of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, have said the bill is needed to prevent the infringement on people’s constitutionally protected religious rights. Other religious groups have opposed the measure.
The bill also contains language placing “In God We Trust” in the state seal. Polk said the final compromise could include just the language dealing with the state seal, but said, “I don’t think it could happen, but it could happen.”