- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - More than 300 protesters in the state capital Monday had one message for Gov. Phil Bryant: Veto House Bill 1523.

Human Rights Campaign, ACLU of Mississippi and Planned Parenthood Southeast led an afternoon rally outside the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Jackson. The diverse crowd included people from across the state who say the bill would permit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The protesters, civil rights groups, religious leaders and major businesses are all calling on Bryant to veto the religious-objections bill that would allow government employees and private business people to deny services to same-sex couples based on the argument that gay marriage violates their religious beliefs.

Bill 1523 (https://bit.ly/1Mq4DyE ) is one of numerous such measures being introduced across the country after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Just last week, Georgia’s Republican governor vetoed a similar bill after big corporations and national sports groups spoke out against it and indicated that it could have negative repercussions on the state’s economy.

Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, whose district is in southern Mississippi, voiced support for the bill Monday. He joins the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and other supporters who say the bill protects people from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs.

Bryant hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the bill. Spokesman Clay Chandler said Monday that the governor will thoroughly review it before making a decision.

Blossom Brown, a 29-year-old transgender activist and a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women, said that if Bryant signs the bill into law, the governor would be forcing LGBTQ youth out of Mississippi.

“I wanted to stay to help my community, but he’s forcing people like me to leave the state for better opportunities,” Brown said in the morning, before the afternoon rally. “This is my state, and I hate to see it move backward after coming such a long way.”

At the rally, protesters chanted “No hate in our state” while holding signs and banners that said “Black trans lives matter” and one comparing the bill to Jim Crow laws that said, “‘Straight only’ is the new ‘white only.’” Speakers took to the podium before the group marched around the mansion.

HRC President Chad Griffin said that Bryant would be remembered in history by what he does with HB 1523. He called on Bryant to meet with LGBT people and hear why they oppose the bill.

“Love really does conquer hate and the question tonight is, ‘Will Gov. Bryant listen?’” Griffin said to the crowd. “Is he listening to you tonight?”

The group chartered a bus to bring protesters from along the Mississippi Coast up to Jackson.

Brandiilyne Dear, a lesbian pastor from the south Mississippi city of Hattiesburg, drove more than an hour to speak at the protest. The pastor of the interdenominational Joshua Generation Church said the bill violated Christian messages of love and unity.

“Ask yourself this question: Would Jesus sign this bill?” she said. “The answer is as simple as the gospel: love thy neighbor.”

The Mississippi Manufacturers Association voiced its opposition to the bill earlier in the afternoon. By opposing the bill, it joined the state’s chamber of commerce and several corporations with a presence in the state. Nissan North America, Chevron, Huntington Ingalls Industries, MGM Resorts and Entergy all voiced opposition to the bill last week.

Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College, said the bill was “not even close” to constitutional. He said the bill violates the basic principles of equality and freedom of religion by favoring one particular set of beliefs over others.

If signed into law, it would quickly be struck down in federal court, Steffey said.

“I wouldn’t even put a statute like this on my final exam because it wouldn’t be a challenge for my students,” Steffey said Monday. “It’s so blatantly unconstitutional.”

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