- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers are scheduled to finish their three-month session at the end of this week, and they have plenty of work left to do.

Bills dealing with religious practices, abortion limits and a special-education voucher program await consideration.

Senate Bill 2681 (https://bit.ly/1hheTXI ), titled the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, has sparked concerns about anti-gay discrimination.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said in an interview Monday that if the final version of ends up being similar to religious-practices laws in about 18 other states, “I’m going to sign it into law.”

When the original version of the Mississippi bill passed the Senate in late January, it said government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practice without a compelling reason. The Senate debate focused primarily on a provision Bryant had requested, to add “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

There was nothing said during that debate about the bill’s similarities to an Arizona proposal that, at the time, was being broadly criticized as a way to let people cite religious beliefs in refusing service to gay people, such as not baking a cake for a same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony. Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, eventually vetoed that bill after business groups said it could hurt the state’s economy.

After the Mississippi bill passed the Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics started calling on the House to kill the bill. On March 12, the House diluted the religious-practices provisions by turning those parts of the bill into a study group, but kept the part about changing the state seal. That version of the bill passed the House 82-35.

A final version of the bill was filed Monday night and will be sent to both chambers for debate this week. It removes the provisions about a study group and says, in part: “Government should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.”

The state’s influential Southern Baptist lobbying group, Christian Action Commission, supports a religious-practices bill.

Another proposal awaiting debate is House Bill 1400 (https://bit.ly/1guNDDZ ), which would ban abortion beyond about the midpoint of a full-term pregnancy.

Diane Derzis, who owns Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, told The Associated Press in February that the proposed ban wouldn’t affect the facility, Jackson Women’s Health Organization. She said the facility stops doing abortions after 16 weeks, and before an abortion is done, a sonogram is performed and the patient is told the gestational age of the fetus. Derzis said she’d expect someone to file a legal challenge if Mississippi enacts a law to ban abortion midway through a 40-week full-term pregnancy.

The most recent Health Department statistics show 2,176 abortions were done in Mississippi in 2012. Two were listed at 21 weeks or later, and 382 were listed as unknown gestational age.

House Bill 765 (https://bit.ly/1gUu1fd ) proposes creating a special-education voucher program, giving parents of children with special needs $6,000 to spend on private school tuition or private tutoring.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus


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