Religious Freedom or Anti-Gay Segregation?

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Image courtesy of the Deep South Progressive

The use of language intrigues me.

There is an article on Slate.com titled “Mississippi’s Anti-Gay Segregation Bill Got Unanimous Bipartisan Support.”

It refers to Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2681. This bill is officially known as the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The author of the Slate article gave the bill the “Anti-Gay Segregation” title.  Elsewhere  it is called the “Right to Discriminate” bill.

The language in question is that:

“ ‘Exercise of religion’ includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief.”

(Click here to see the full language)

This is important because it conceivably allows business owners to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or anything else that offends their religious beliefs, much like the bill that was recently struck down in Arizona, (Senate Bill 1062).

It’s actually a short bill, with no reference to homosexuality, LGBT or discrimination. So the potential harm is inferred. But then again, nationally, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which has always allowed people to say hateful things about other people and groups… it doesn’t make it right, but certain things that would be objectionable to “a reasonable person” are in fact protected by law already.

A wise friend of mine pointed out that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the federal law which prohibits discrimination by private businesses which are places of public accommodation — only prevents businesses from refusing service based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Federal law does not prevent businesses from refusing service to customers based on sexual orientation.

In a highly charged Facebook discussion of this matter, I recently said that it’s the simplicity of the language in Mississippi SB 2681 and the various way people are rephrasing its meaning that I find interesting. “Does it allow for potential discrimination, yes. Is it a Segregation Bill? hardly….” I said. “So interesting, the various perceptions of the very same language.”

A friend of a friend replied, “I’m surprised you can so blithely dismiss the ‘potential discrimination.’ “

To that I replied that it’s not that I’m dismissing it but rather I’m pointing at how one side can call it “Religious Freedom” when in fact background research indicates that the bill is likely a thinly veiled attempt to justify discrimination, and the other extreme can call it “Segregation,” which it certainly is not. So in my opinion, both versions are misrepresentations.

That’s the power of words…. They can be made to say anything, even if they don’t actually say it, and meaning of the words can be implied… or inferred… or assumed – correctly or erroneously.

But while the public can debate the meaning of any given legislation, the legislators who vote on such matters have a responsibility to fully comprehend not just the words in the passage, but the implications of the legislation for the society they are entrusted to govern.

About Wendy L. Goldstein

A career communications professional with a deep interest in communications theory, traditional communication, social media and emerging communications technologies, Wendy L. Goldstein offers public relations, marketing and business communication services through WLG Communication, www.wlgcommunication.com.
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