Around a year ago, an intense fervor rose within Oxford. The introduction of a Mississippi bill forced everyone to ask themselves where the line should be drawn between LGBT rights and religious freedom.
The legislation is prompting that same question once again.
House Bill 1523, or the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act – originally introduced last year by several members of the Mississippi House of Representatives – became a law in October.
Several student organizations have come out against it. UM Pride, a campus organization focused on tackling LGBT issues, sees the law an incredible disrespect to the state’s LGBT individuals.
“Even if most businesses won’t discriminate against the LGBT community, the existence of the bill is an attack on us,” said Daniel Dubuisson, president of UM Pride.
The bill set out to protect “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions” preventing the government from penalizing business owners who refuse service because of their religious beliefs.
The bill’s introduction spurred much of the town to action, inciting protests and demonstrations. Several small businesses, such as The Cakery and Square Books, also took steps to affirm to LGBT customers they intended to continue serving everyone.
Slogans such as “If you’re buying, we’re selling” could be seen peppered throughout town on storefront windows. Despite the push from within the state government for the bill, many Oxford citizens held staunchly against it.
“We made signs protesting [the bill],” Dubuisson said. “We wanted to make the people aware as we passed by. It wasn’t just for fun; it was also to make sure everyone knew what was happening and that it needed to be stopped.”
Other state and national organizations joined the dialogue. The Human Rights Campaign heavily criticized Governor Phil Bryant’s approval of the bill. Seven other states, including New York, California, and the District of Columbia, also issued travel bans for non-essential travel to Mississippi.
Even with a strong push from Oxford’s citizens and national organizations, the bill was passed and signed by Bryant April 5, 2016. Set to become effective July 1, 2016, the bill was halted by U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves, who issued a preliminary injunction on the law.
For more than a year, the law sat as conversation faded.
“I think a lot of people got lax since it wasn’t affecting them,” Dubuisson said. “HB 1523 fell into the background due to other national events that were going on.”
On June 23, 2017, a new development roused the issue into the forefront once more. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that Reeves’ reasoning for the injunction held no standing.
Because the law had not been put into place, no examples of businesses causing harm by discriminating against individuals could be provided. The bill was put back into motion and took effect Oct. 6, 2017.
“Really, we have to wait until it goes into effect and see who gets harmed by the bill,” Bri Warner, secretary of the Ole Miss ACLU said. “Organizations such as the ACLU are already seeking out people who have been wronged now that the bill is in place.”
Dubuisson also noted the level of campus engagement regarding the topic. When the topic was in the forefront of everyone’s minds, the issue was widely discussed. Once the bill was suspended, however, Dubuisson found it hard to keep students engaged about the topic. The receding of the bill’s prominence led to a general apathy, which Dubuisson felt hurt the cause.
“Don’t just sit back,” Dubuisson said. “You really have to stand up and take a stance when someone’s being discriminated for anything. I spent too much time in my earlier years being ambivalent, and that’s not okay.”
Some also believe the bill doesn’t not just hurt LGBT individuals, but the image of Mississippi as a whole. Another concern is the bill could lead to other, more restrictive anti-LGBT bills.
“If legislators feel okay, like, ‘Look, we’ve got this done,’ Dubuisson said, ‘they might see what else they could squeeze past all the red tape and bureaucracy and pass, and I think that is a dangerous challenge.”
UM Pride plans to become more visible in the coming months, signalling to individuals they are there to support anyone who might face discrimination due to the law.
Despite the law causing tremors among social and political organizations, many local businesses have seen no major changes happen because of it.
The new law may allow a denial of service, but many prominent local businesses plan to keep their doors open to everyone like they promised to do last year. For some, it is almost as if the bill never existed in the first place.
“It doesn’t really affect us,” Kelli Russell, owner of The Cakery said. “We’re not ever gonna deny service to someone based on their sexual orientation.”
The Cakery was one of the businesses that affirmed LGBT groups during last year’s pride parade, which happened when the bill was gaining prominence. Providing rainbow-themed cookies and cupcakes, they wanted to show that their doors would always be open to the LGBT community.
“I feel like my real job here is to just love on everybody,” Russell said.
For the coming months, and perhaps years, the citizens of Oxford and Mississippi will have to debate the question of where a line should be drawn between religious and LGBT rights. For local institutions like The Cakery, however, business will go on as usual.