Mississippi, my adopted home state, place that I love, is reverting to its old ways, which many of us who live here had believed and hoped to be in the distant past.
Mississippi is using religion to discriminate against minorities, and politicians are pandering to the lowest common denominator of voters, making hay of hate. This time, the targets are gays and lesbians.
The bill, already signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, is called by its out-of-state pushers and proponents a “religious freedom bill.” The Family Research Council, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, says it gives people the right “to live and work according to one’s conscience.” That is, of course, only if your conscience matches that of the majority.
In other words, this law potentially gives folks the right to discriminate in the name of religion. We’ll have to see how far it gets before federal law intervenes.
I grew up in Montgomery, Ala., during the heyday of George Wallace and exclusion. The churches were the last stronghold and defenders of racial segregation. There were careful exodus plans at my white, Southern Baptist church, for instance, if a black family dared to show up to worship.
The long legal struggle to end segregation could have been avoided, and many deaths prevented, if all churches had taken the lead instead of the unholy path of resistance.
You would have hoped we might have learned something. Mississippi, in particular, was a bloody battleground in that war. Mississippi has worked for decades to overcome the image of itself that’s been seared into the national consciousness. We had, I thought, begun to celebrate the differences that make this a rich and interesting, magical and musical place like no other.
Now this. All the public-relations firms in the world won’t be able to undo for decades the harm this silly law will do. Other states are considering similar “religious freedom bills,” but it will be — already is — Mississippi that gets the attention. Negative attention, which, in this case, is fully deserved. The Republican governor of Arizona vetoed the bill in her state after watching the resulting outrage. She had sense.
Let’s be honest. For once. If ever there was a state where it’s safe to be a Christian, it’s Mississippi. There are more church houses than gopher holes, and no state government has ever attempted to interfere with religious exercise.
Why do politicians always resort to code words, enacting legislation that says one thing and intends another? When did “freedom” and “family” get co-opted to mean “hate”? Mississippi churches are not the victim of anything, except, after this, much bad press.
Mississippi needs better schools, more jobs, health insurance for many of its citizens, among the poorest in the nation. Gov. Phil Bryant and the state’s lawyers have plenty on their plates. Why open this can of worms to encourage business owners to thump a Bible while refusing service to anyone perceived as different?
How much in legal fees will this cost the poorest state in the United States to defend? How many with money will avoid Mississippi — corporations, tourists, fair-minded Christians from other states — because of this nonsense? Will the extremists who pushed this law pay for the damage? I don’t think so.
And how can you live according to “one’s conscience” if you don’t have one?
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.