- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mississippi bakers, florists and photographers who want to avoid serving gay weddings for religious reasons can breathe easy — at least for now.

Calls for a boycott and repeal campaign followed after Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a religious-freedom bill Tuesday that protects small-business owners from facing penalties for declining to participate in same-sex ceremonies.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay advocacy group, called the bill “horrific” and lambasted Mr. Bryant while vowing that “his state will suffer.”

“Just as we’re doing elsewhere, we will continue to rally fair-minded voters, businesses, and civil rights advocates to repeal,” Mr. Griffin said in a statement.

Mr. Bryant rejected accusations that the legislation permits discrimination against gays and lesbians, arguing that it actually stops “government from interfering with people of faith who are exercising their religious beliefs in a manner involving marriage, or involving activities that are offensive to them as a business person.”

“This [bill] does not create one action against any class or group of people,” Mr. Bryant said on SuperTalk Mississippi. “It doesn’t create a new action at all or a new defense against any action of those people.”

Asked whether gays could be refused service at a restaurant or hotel, Mr. Bryant said, “Never.” On the other hand, he said, a restaurant owner would be allowed to decline a request to use the premises for a same-sex ceremony.

A #BoycottMississippi movement gained steam Tuesday on social media, but Mississippi isn’t the only state facing boycott calls. In the last two weeks, gay-rights advocates have called for boycotts of Kansas and North Carolina after their GOP governors signed religious-freedom bills.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed March 22 the Campus Religious Freedom Bill, which allows religious groups at public universities to limit their membership to like-minded believers without losing funding or resources.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation March 23 forbidding localities from passing “bathroom bills” giving transgender people access to restrooms, locker rooms and other public accommodations based on their gender identity, not their biological sex.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said Tuesday he was encouraged by the success of the state bills.

“This new law gives fresh momentum to efforts on the federal and state level to stop government discrimination against people who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Mr. Perkins said in a statement, referring to the Mississippi measure.

Gay-rights groups notched a win March 28 when Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious-freedom measure that would have protected small-business owners from participating in gay weddings.

Mr. Deal faced intense pressure to veto the bill from national companies like Disney, Apple and Time Warner, while the NFL hinted that Atlanta could lose its bid for the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.

Leading Mississippi employers such as Nissan, Tyson Food, MGM Resorts International and Toyota have expressed their opposition to the bill, according to the HRC.

Mississippi Democratic Party spokeswoman Ouida Meruvia called the bill-signing “incredibly disappointing” and accused Republicans of “building new barriers of bigotry.”

Even so, a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey released Friday found that 63 percent of registered voters surveyed supported the bill. The poll was conducted for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

“It seems that the opponents have not even read the bill, or they have picked out specific words or phrases without seeing or understanding the context,” said center president Forest Thigpen in a statement. “If they do understand it, their opposition shows the extreme nature of the Left and some corporate interests that treat even mild religious protections as unacceptable.”

House Bill 1523 was approved overwhelmingly in the state House by 80-39, and 31-17 by the state Senate.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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