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States, Cities Limit Official Travel To Mississippi Over 'Religious Freedom' Law

A crowd of around 500 protest against House Bill 1523 outside the governor's office during a rally by the Human Rights Campaign on Monday in Jackson, Miss.
James Patterson
AP Images for Human Rights Campaign
A crowd of around 500 protest against House Bill 1523 outside the governor's office during a rally by the Human Rights Campaign on Monday in Jackson, Miss.

Several states and cities around the country have instructed their officials to avoid nonessential travel to Mississippi, in reaction to that state's recent passage of a law protecting those who deny services to LGBT people because of religious beliefs.

The bans are similar to those enacted in response to a controversial LGBT law in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, the business backlash has been relatively muted, compared with recent faceoffs in North Carolina and Georgia.

The law in question, the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," protects three specific religious beliefs: that marriage is between a man and a woman, that sex should only happen within such a marriage, and that a person is male or female based on their genetics and anatomy at birth. Under the law, anyone who denies certain services to someone based on one of those beliefs can't be punished.

Supporters say it's a way of protecting individuals with religious objections to homosexuality from "discrimination" from the state — that is, any possible punishment administered by the state government.

Opponents say the law amounts to the state declaring its support for open discrimination against LGBT people.

Since the bill was signed into law on Tuesday, five states — Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington — and three cities — San Francisco, Santa Fe and Seattle — have banned their officials from any state-funded, nonessential travel to Mississippi.

"We cannot allow this injustice to go unanswered," Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement. "When the rights of some Americans are threatened, it is the responsibility of all Americans to stand in opposition to those discriminatory acts."

"This is 2016. America is better than this," Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said on Twitter.

Mayor Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York both called the law "hateful," while Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said it was "rooted in backwards thinking and backwards values."

Some business groups have also spoken out against the bill — but their opposition has been far more subdued than that from state and city leaders.

The Mississippi Manufacturer's Association, for instance, had previously called the bill "troubling" and called for Gov. Phil Bryant to veto it.

But once the bill was passed, The Associated Press reports, the MMA's response was muted: "The Mississippi Manufacturers Association's position continues to reflect the concerns manufacturers have with this bill and its potential to conflict with their policies of diversity and inclusion. However, the MMA respects the wishes of the legislature and governor," the group said.

Several large businesses have spoken out against the law more forcefully — including AT&T, Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts, Nissan, Toyota and Levi Strauss — but none has threatened to stop doing business in the state.

That's a noticeable contrast to the response in other states, where pointed reactions from big business have been celebrated by LGBT advocates and decried as "economic blackmail" by conservative groups.

In North Carolina, the governor recently signed a so-called bathroom bill into law — blocking cities from creating legal protections for LGBT people and mandating that trans people use the bathrooms of their gender as assigned at birth. Paypal canceled plans to establish an operations center in Charlotte, which the company says would have created more than 400 jobs, and the NBA has discussed the possibility of moving the 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte.

In Georgia, the legislature passed a "religious liberties" bill criticized by LGBT advocates. Disney and its Marvel affiliate threatened to stop filming in the state, and Salesforce, a 16,000-person company, suggested it would move a planned conference out of Atlanta. The state's Republican governor vetoed the bill.

One possible explanation for the disparate reactions is that Mississippi — by some measures the poorest state in the country — has a different relationship with big American businesses.

As the AP puts it: "Mississippi, with a slow-growing economy, no Fortune 500 company headquarters and little technology employment, could be less vulnerable than other states to major corporations exerting economic pressure."

Meanwhile, Tennessee and South Carolina are both currently considering similarly controversial bills.

The Tennessee bill — which has passed the state House and is waiting for Senate approval of a language change — allows counselors and therapists to refuse to treat anyone whose behaviors conflict with the provider's religious beliefs. The bill says no one can be prosecuted or penalized for that, but does require them to refer clients to someone who will treat them.

In South Carolina, a bill similar to the one in North Carolina — blocking local jurisdictions from passing ordinances that permit trans people to use the bathroom of their choice — has been introduced into the state Senate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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