by Zane Ballard
By now, most folks have heard of House Bill 1523 (the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act) in some form or fashion. Commonly the bill has been referred to as an anti-gay law, though it seems to fancy itself as a law preventing anti-religious discrimination. For those who might choose to sift through the less-than-sly code-switching legalese, HB 1523 reveals itself to be a broad legislative statement on the unacceptability of certain persons. Section three of the law recognizes three broad “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” as meriting the protection of the law:
(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.
There’s a herd of elephants in the proverbial room that this law seems perfectly comfortable leaving unaddressed. One is the shamefully blatant bend of the law against the liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons, as well as those whose pre- or extramarital sexual behavior may stick in the craw of dated sensibilities. Another is the cheap sleight of hand at work, playing the rights (fears) of the religious against the easily pointed out and marginalized. Facile smokescreens like these obscure the host of other issues Mississippi legislators choose to ignore: poverty, failing public schools, serious disparities in healthcare and upward mobility, racial inequality, crumbling infrastructure and a stagnant state economy. State elected officials stridently pit themselves against the mandates of the Supreme Court and our
president, as well as the well-being of Mississippi’s own citizens, making it difficult to see whom this law might benefit. It certainly doesn’t attract new industry or entrepreneurs to Mississippi (as we’ve seen from how industry reacts to other similar state laws), nor does it encourage an increasingly LGBTQ-identified and accepting generation of youth to stick around any longer than necessary. Inevitable lawsuits loom in Mississippi’s future in the form of multimillion dollar efforts to fight a losing battle in court. Our legislators can’t adequately improve public education or fix potholes, but they can sure as hell tie up state funds in a thinly veiled effort to reinstate intolerance as the order of the day.
One sentiment I’ve heard expressed on more than one occasion was that this law doesn’t change anything, seeing as Mississippi already offers no protection for LGBTQ individuals. Frankly, I am surprised at the callousness in this peculiar brand of optimism. Research in psychology and public health has shown us that the passage of states laws like these or the same-sex marriage bans of 2004 profoundly impact the mental health of LGBTQ folks in those states. For those who prefer practical considerations, this fact places additional strain on our already overtaxed mental and medical healthcare sector. Needless to say, it will not be the wealthy or the well-insured who will suffer as a result. But be sure the effects of this law will be felt, acutely, by those it already targets, and to overlook that fact is to ignore the central essence of this law. This law does not exist in a vacuum, and its relationship to other issues this state faces is troubling.
Our country has remained gripped by the fear of difference for perhaps the majority of its relatively brief time, certainly during the resurgence of fear culture that’s descended over us in the past 15 years. This world moves faster than it ever has, and I know that I for one am sometimes less than sympathetic to those who feel left behind by it. But there is a clear distinction to be made between understanding and empathy, and gaining perspective on the rationale behind this law should not conceal a deep cruelty at work in it. Folks might be angry at the world; let them be angry at the world. But no one is therefore entitled to make others miserable just for living here, no matter the pace of their own conception of justice or liberty. I won’t argue with the sincerely held desire to put aspirations toward equality in their place. If the existence of so many LGBTQ-affirming places of worship and the shared experiences of so many queer people simply trying to live meaningful lives leaves those sympathetic to this law unmoved, so be it. I suppose once someone makes up their mind, it doesn’t really matter what their god says or doesn’t say.
Happy Confederate “Heritage” month, Millsapians. It’s already been a long one.