Explainer: Understanding Mississippi’s Freedom of Conscience Law

April 7, 2016

Earlier this week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law an act that guarantees freedom of conscience on three specific beliefs about sexuality and marriage. Here is what you should know about the new law:

What is the name of the law?

The official name of the law is “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act.”

What is the purpose of the law?

The stated intention of the law is to provide certain protections regarding a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction for persons, religious organizations and private associations.

The law also defines what types of actions would be discriminatory by the state government under this act and outlines what remedies a person can assert against the state government for violations of this act.

What beliefs are protected by the act?

The three specific “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” protected by this act are the belief or conviction that:

• Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;

• Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and

• Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

(For the purposes of this article, the beliefs specifically protected under this act will be referred to as Protected Beliefs.)

What are discriminatory actions by the state government?

To prevent the state from punishing people and organizations because of their Protected Beliefs, the act includes a broad range of actions that would be considered “discriminatory actions” if taken by the state to punish citizens. For example, the state may not impose a fine, withhold a state-issued diploma or fire a state employee simply because they hold or express the Protected Beliefs.

What actions by religious organizations are protected by the act?

The law states that no person or agency affiliated with the state government may take “any discriminatory action against a religious organization” because they hold the Protected Beliefs.

The protected actions of religious organizations are:

• The organization cannot be forced to use their facilities or services to celebrate or solemnize weddings that violate their Protected Beliefs.

• The organization cannot be forced to make any employment-related decisions that violate their Protected Beliefs.

• The organization cannot be forced to make any decisions concerning the sale, rental, occupancy of or terms and conditions of occupying a dwelling or other housing under its control that violate their Protected Beliefs.

• The organization cannot be forced to make any decisions concerning adoption or foster care services that violate their Protected Beliefs.

What actions by persons are protected by the act?

Under this act “persons” includes a natural person, in his or her individual capacity, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, or in his or her capacity as a member, officer, owner, volunteer, employee, manager, religious leader, clergy or minister; all religious organizations; businesses (whether sole proprietorship, or closely held company, partnership, association, organization, firm, corporation, cooperative, trust, society or other closely held entity); and cooperatives, ventures or enterprises comprised of two (2) or more individuals.

The protected actions of persons are:

• The state government cannot take discriminatory action against people granted custody of a foster or adoptive child, based solely on fact that the person intends to guide, instruct or raise a child in a manner consistent with the Protected Beliefs.

• The state cannot take discriminatory action against a person simply because that person establishes sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms or other intimate facilities or settings, based their Protected Beliefs.

• The state cannot take discriminatory action against a person who refuses to provide the following goods or services based on their Protected Beliefs:

Photography, poetry, videography, disc-jockey services, wedding planning, printing, publishing or similar marriage-related goods or services, floral arrangements, dress making, cake or pastry artistry, assembly-hall or other wedding-venue rentals, limousine or other car-service rentals, jewelry sales and services, or similar marriage-related services, accommodations, facilities or goods.

What actions by state employees are protected by the act?

The protected actions of state employees are:

• The state cannot take discriminatory action against a state employee who lawfully speaks or engages in expressive conduct based on their Protected Beliefs, provided the speech is consistent with any other expression of a religious, political or moral belief or conviction allowed.

• State employees can be recused from having to authorize or issue marriage licenses if doing so forces them to violate their Protected Beliefs. (The person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.)

• Judges, magistrates, justices of the peace or their deputies, may seek recusal from performing or solemnizing lawful marriages based upon or in a manner consistent with their Protected Beliefs.

Does this law protect individuals and religious organizations from actions taken by private individuals, companies or organizations?

No. This act merely prevents the state government from discriminating against an individual or organization because of the Protected Beliefs. It does not add any new restrictions on private agencies or individuals not associated with the state of Mississippi.

When does the law go into effect?

This act takes effect and will be in force on July 1, 2016.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More