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Southern Miss students, faculty react to religious freedom/discrimination bill

By April Garon Residents of Mississippi, including students and faculty of Southern Miss, are divided over the purpose and ramifications of the states Religious Freedom Act, a bill opponents call the turn away the gays bill. It's telling people that gay people aren't an equal part of this state and we deserve to be refused the same services as straight people, Bennett Forrest, a senior theater major said. It's a huge step backwards in a state that's already backwards enough. Supporters of the bill claim that it will protect the religious freedom of the states residents by allowing them to sue over laws that create a substantial burden on the practices of their religion. Opponents to the bill, including members of the LGBT community, believe SB2681 could be used to discriminate against gay individuals by making it acceptable to refuse services to them that are also offered to heterosexual people. This bill stems from the Arizona bill that was in the headlines in February, which was vetoed by Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, citing unintended and negative consequences of the bill. South Dakota, Utah, Idaho and Ohio have similar bills working through their legislatures now. Supporters of the bill and those like it say that the purpose of it is to protect religious freedom. Marija Bekafigo, a professor in the political science department, explained the impetus for bills like these. Prior to 2013, section three of the Defense of Marriage Act allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage licenses granted by other states. In 2013 this section was deemed unconstitutional, she said. The Supreme Court decision last year, United States v. Windsor, essentially struck down DOMA (and) is driving much of this, Bekafigo said. States are scrambling to enact legislation under the auspices of protecting religion. The House must vote on the bill by March 14. Changes have been made to the wording of the bill, including changing that an individual must be burdened by state action before taking action to substantially burdened. This change would make

the threshold of potential litigation much higher. This means individuals could only sue if their religious freedom was significantly hindered. Both Bekafigo and Forrest said that they were not surprised when they first learned about the bill. Ashton Pittmans first reaction when he found out about the bill was to report on it as a journalist on his blog. He is the creator of the blog Deep South Progressive and a Southern Miss senior. But after he got the story out, he had time to reflect on the implications of the bill. My thought was, Wow, my own state is trying to pass a bill for no other reason than to deny my humanity, Pittman said. Thankfully, we have groups like The Human Rights Campaign and The Campaign for Southern Equality fighting on our side, along with small businesses and a few big businesses across the state. To people who continue to support the bill, Forrest wants to give the message of tolerance. I would say to think less about your morals and think about the fact that you are fighting against one of the most basic human rights, Forrest said. Which is to leave your house and live your life as freely as you want. Don't sit and think about what this "gay man" deserves and think more about what this "human being" deserves. LGBT people in Mississippi lived in a politically and religiously charged environment, and Pittman pointed out the impact this bill can have on the youth especially. We know from studies that the more conservative a state is and the more antiLGBT legislation it passes, the higher the suicide rates are among LGBT teens, Pittman said. Nationally, LGBT teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. Bills like this only serve to reinforce those feelings of hopelessness and rejection.