My father grew up in the pre-integration South, and when I was young, he would occasionally tell me stories about the horrors of segregation. He remembers the stores that refused to serve black people, the movie theaters that relegated blacks to the balcony, the schools—including his own—reserved for white children only. My father related these stories with disgust, but also relief: Segregating individuals on the basis of their identity, he implied, was so obviously unfair and unconstitutional that it could never again happen in America.
Now it is happening again.
On Friday morning, the Mississippi legislature sent the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, or HB 1523, to Gov. Phil Bryant for his signature. If enacted, HB 1523 would be the most sweeping and malicious anti-LGBTQ measure yet enacted in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is an outward attempt to revive segregation, to demean sexual and gender minorities by depriving them of equal dignity under the law. HB 1523 relegates LGBTQ people to the fringes of society, denying them the ability to participate equally in the social and economic life of the nation. It is a terrifying piece of legislation, and its impending passage makes a mockery of the Constitution’s most fundamental guarantees of liberty.
Unlike some other bills that purport to protect religious freedom, HB 1523 is startlingly explicit in its goal of legalizing LGBTQ segregation. The bill gives religious landlords a right to refuse to rent out property to gay and trans people, and to evict them on account of their identity. It gives religious employers a right to fire LGBTQ people for being gay or trans. It permits both state-run and private adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples, effectively reviving a ban that was just struck down. It allows doctors to refuse to treat to gay and trans patients, except in emergency situations. And it affirms the legality of “gay conversion therapy” and “gender conversion therapy” for both adults and minors—brutal, medically debunked practices which several states have found to be fraudulent and unconscionable.
It gets so much worse. HB 1523 also grants private businesses the ability to refuse “services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges” to same-sex couples. The company need only proclaim that providing the services or accommodations would entail recognizing the same-sex couple’s relationship. Helpfully, the bill enumerates some businesses that receive this exemption, including “photography, poetry, videography, disc-jockey services,” “wedding planning, printing, publishing or similar marriage-related goods or services,” and “floral arrangements, dress making, cake or pastry artistry, assembly-hall or other wedding-venue rentals,” “limousine or other car-service rentals, jewelry sales and services, or similar marriage-related services, accommodations, facilities or goods.”
In sum, HB 1523 gives not just the wedding industry, but also DJs and limousine drivers the right to turn away same-sex couples. Prejudiced businesses, drivers, and DJs might as well add a “No Gays Allowed” disclaimer to their websites.
The bill then veers into North Carolina territory, allowing public schools to refuse trans students access to the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity—in direct violation of federal law. It actually goes a step farther, also permitting employers to forbid trans people from using the correct bathroom. Then, just for good measure, the bill allows judges and clerks to refuse to license same-sex marriages. The segregation of gay and trans people from the rest of society is complete.
Much criticism of HB 1523 has focused on the fact that the bill would also legalize discrimination against heterosexual people who have sex outside of marriage. That is true and troubling, but make no mistake: This bill’s primary design and intent is to debase and disadvantage LGBTQ people in every aspect of life. From employment and housing to marriage and adoption, HB 1523 puts sexual and gender minorities at risk of discrimination. Even a trip to the bathroom or the doctor’s office would suddenly become fraught with danger and uncertainty. LGBTQ people might as well stop engaging in mainstream society: At every turn, they will be confronted with the potential for discrimination and a reminder that their state views them as second-class citizens. In other words, they will live under a legal regime of segregation. For years, I believed this could never happen again. I was wrong.