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New State Laws Take Effect Today

By Evelina Burnett | Published 01 Jul 2014 07:42am | comments

A slew of new laws go into effect today in Mississippi, the first day of the state’s fiscal year. One of the most closely watched: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Several groups will be protesting the much-debated law later today.

Rallies against Senate Bill 2681 will be held in Tupelo and Jackson. On the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Lesbian and Gay Community Center will be hosting a “backfire bonfire” and moment of silence in Biloxi.

Jeff White-Perkins, the center’s president, says he's worried the law will be misinterpreted and lead to discrimination against gay Mississippians.

"There needs to be protections for everyone, not just one specific group," he says. "I would like to see it to where LGBT people have the rights that they deserve as an American, but also to see the people of faith to have their rights as well. I don't see why everyone can't be treated equally without going back and forth like this."

But Jimmy Porter, executive director of the Christian Action Commission, one of the proponents of the bill, says he doesn't think the law will be used to discriminate. He says what the law does is prevent governments from passing laws that discriminate against churches or people exercising their religious beliefs.

“I look at it basically as an insurance policy," he says, "in case somebody wanted to pass a law to place an undue burden and hardship on religious organizations and insititutions, and so it gives us a legal defense to stand up against any laws or anything that might possibly be passed in the future."

Renick Taylor is a member of Mississippi's state advisory committee to the U-S Commission on Civil Rights. He says he's concerned that the law will allow discrimination on religious grounds, especially against gay Mississippians.

"Most groups are protected by federal statutes - women are protected, minorities, African Americans, the list goes on, it's quite encompassing - and none of those people would allowed to be discriminated under this bill because they have these federal protections that supercede this bill," Taylor says. "The LGBT community is not among those groups. We don't have any federal protections."

A number of other closely watched bills also go into effect today, including a law that introduces an array of reforms to the criminal justice system; a law that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks; and a law that limits the restrictions cities and counties can put on guns. Teacher pay raises also start today.

One law that’s not going into effect yet: drug testing of some federal aid recipients. The Mississippi Department of Human Services has postponed implementation of drug screening of applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families until after a period of public comment and a public hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Mississippi Center for Justice say they’ve found “legal and practical problems” with the proposed regulations. 

The public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, July 22, from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Hinds County Extension Office located at 1735 Wilson Boulevard in Jackson. 

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