- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A bill in Mississippi would sanction discrimination by letting public employees refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples because of the employees’ religious beliefs, protesters said Tuesday.

Mississippi is one of about 10 states where such bills were filed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The Georgia governor vetoed a similar bill Monday after business leaders said it would have allowed discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

The Mississippi Senate has a Wednesday deadline to consider House Bill 1523. A few dozen people protested the bill Tuesday at the Capitol, chanting: “No hate in our state.”

The bill says public employees, business people and those involved with foster care or adoptions could not be punished for acting on beliefs that marriage should only be between a man and a woman; that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage”; and that gender is determined at birth.

“The whole bill gives a license to discriminate,” said Rob Hill, Mississippi director of the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign.

One protester held a sign that compared the opposition to same-sex marriage to the resistance to ending racial segregation: “It is not about cake the same way it was never about water fountains,” the sign said, a referral to bakers who would be exempted from providing wedding cakes to same-sex couples under the bill.

Indiana faced a backlash last year after it passed a law allowing those who oppose gay rights for religious reasons to withhold services such as providing cakes or flowers for same-sex weddings. The law prompted an uproar that included calls to boycott the state. It was later revised, although the Legislature had wanted to revisit the issue this year.

Supporters say the Mississippi bill is a way to protect people who have deeply held beliefs about marriage and gender. The measure is supported by Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is a leader in his local Baptist church.

Among others who would be exempt from any punishment under the bill, which passed the House Feb. 19:

- Any religious organization that refuses to perform a marriage or provide facilities for the wedding of a same-sex couple, or that fires its own employees or refuses to sell or rent property to people who disagree with the group’s beliefs about marriage, sexual relations or gender identity.

- People involved with foster care or adoption who teach children that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, that sex should only take place inside such a marriage and that gender is set at birth.

- Anyone who refuses to participate in providing treatment, counseling or surgeries for sex reassignment; or fertility services for people who are not in a male-female marriage.

- Businesses that refuse to provide a variety of services for same-sex weddings, including photography, dressmaking or cake baking.

- Any person who establishes policies about “employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms or other intimate facilities or settings.”

- Any state employee who expresses opinions about marriage, sexual relations or gender identity.

The bill also would allow people to sue the state government if they believe they are being punished for holding specific religious beliefs about marriage, sexual relations and gender identity. Critics say this could open the state to expensive lawsuits by waiving sovereign immunity, the general ban on people suing state government for most reasons.

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Online: House Bill 1523, https://bit.ly/1Mq4DyE .

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