“What we’re trying to do, gentlemen, is just protect the religious freedom of Mississippians.”
–Mississippi Rep. Joey Hood, as quoted in this article.
Mr. Hood,* how can you say that your goal is to protect religious freedom as you pass a bill (SB 2681) which stipulates that “In God We trust” will be added to the state seal? You realize, of course, that this seriously undermines your statements about your desire to protect religious freedom for all of Mississippi’s citizens? After all, if you genuinely cared about religious freedom, then you would recognize that not all Mississippians believe in God (not the Christian God, not the Muslim God, not any God), and you would work to ensure that these individuals are represented by their state.
What I am getting at here, Mr. Hood, is that there are many atheists in your state.
I happen to be one of them, and I can tell you that this bill does nothing to protect my religious freedom. In fact, let me be honest with you, it makes me feel like an outsider in my own state. In God we trust? Who is this “we” that you speak of? It certainly isn’t me. But of course, you must have known that not everyone in Mississippi believes in religion. It’s 2014. Surely, you must have known.
And yet, you had the audacity to put such language in a bill that is meant to secure religious freedom? How do you justify such actions?
I realize that a majority of individuals in Mississippi may support such language being added into our seal, as a majority of people are religious; however, the majority’s demands do not always need to be met. Indeed, the United States is founded upon the ideal that all citizens will be free from persecution. To that extent, the government should ensure that the minority is not tyrannized by the majority or made to feel like “others” in their own culture. How do you think that this state sponsored endorsement of religion makes non-religious individuals feel?
I can tell you—it makes us painfully aware of the fact that we are the minority. Moreover, it cultivates an atmosphere of hostility. I have been told, time and time again, that I am immoral, that I am going to hell, that I am blind, indeed, that I am un-American, and all because I do not believe in God.
This bill is not going to make anything easier for me.
And of course, I have read the Constitution. I know that, “separation of church and state,” does not actually appear in this document. But I also know that a government that endorses religion is not truly concerned with equal representation for all its citizens; it is not truly concerned with an individual’s ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Such a government is, in fact, an unfit, broken travesty. It is a government that favors certain groups of individuals above others.
And Mr. Hood, we haven’t even gotten to the ways in which this bill endorses discrimination.
Let us be honest. We exist in a culture. And in culture, nothing occurs in a vacuum. In recent years, our country has moved towards granting full equality to individuals who are LGBTQ. Currently, 17 states recognize marriage between individuals who are the same gender. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in Windsor v. United States that Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that denies legally married same-sex couples over 1,100 protections and responsibilities of marriage, is unconstitutional.
That’s an awful lot of protections and responsibilities. So you can see that recognition of marriage is of the utmost importance for Mississippi residents (for things like power of attorney, health insurance, tax breaks, inheritance rights etc.).
In recent months, the news has been speckled with reports about Christians (or religious individuals, but let’s be honest, Christians) being attacked for refusing to do business with gay couples. In relation to one such case, Fox News asserted that, “in today’s America – gay rights trump religious rights.”
Yet, marriage between individuals of the same gender is banned in Mississippi. This is extremely concerning, as Mississippi uses marriage as the basis for determining a number of different benefits. Moreover, in Mississippi, same sex couples do not have hospital visitation rights. In Mississippi, landlords can discriminate against individuals based on gender and sexual orientation. In Mississippi, employers can discriminate against individuals based on gender and sexual orientation.
What’s more, in Mississippi, individuals of the same gender cannot adopt a child together. Considering that Mississippi has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the Union, one would think that those in government would be concerned with ensuring that there are as many happy, healthy homes as possible. Sadly, this is not the case. Although there is no evidence that same sex relationships cause any harm to children (or to any one else in society), Mississippi still will not allow same sex couples to adopt. What possible justification is there for this besides bigotry, ignorance, and religious intolerance?
The aforementioned is not a rhetorical question, Mr. Hood. As a representative of the state of Mississippi, you should be able to justify the laws of your state, or you should be working to change them.
Given all of the aforementioned, it seems that gay rights do not, in fact, trump the rights of religious people. Religious people can marry. They can adopt. They cannot be fired because of their religion, but they can fire people for being LGBTQ. They cannot be denied housing because of their religion, but they can deny people housing because they are LGBTQ. Indeed, in Mississippi, the government openly acknowledges, “in God we trust.”
In short, Mr. Hood, Mississippi is a haven for the religious individual. It is, in many ways, hell on Earth for those who are LGBTQ.
However, in recent weeks, certain areas of Mississippi have been working against the discriminatory legislation in the state. I am proud to say that my own town, Hattiesburg, recently passed a referendum acknowledging the basic dignity and worth of all LGBTQ individuals.
And in the midst of this conversation, Mississippi passes a bill–not to secure rights for LGBTQ People–to secure rights for religious individuals.
Are we truly to suspect that this bill is not a direct response to the conversation currently taking place about LGBTQ people in our country and in our state? Are we truly to believe that this bill is about securing religious freedom when (as I have already clearly articulated) the freedoms of religious individuals are not at all infringed on in our state? Indeed, are we to believe that you were truly concerned about religious freedom and that your only goal was to secure their rights, despite the fact that LGBTQ people in Mississippi are denied access to a number of the most basic and fundamental protections?
Isn’t it far more likely that you are directly responding to the recent advancements in the freedoms and protections given to LGBTQ individuals in our nation, and trying to work against these advancements? In a state where LGBTQ people already have next to no security, where the government and its representatives have already boldly shown (though constitutional amendments aimed at denying LGBTQ individuals’ rights) that they are determined to keep LGBTQ people second class citizens, isn’t it more likely that this bill was really meant to ensure that religious individuals have the right to deny LGBTQ people service?
I fail to see how you could be so overwhelmingly concerned with protecting religious freedom and simultaneously care so very little (indeed, not care at all) about the LGBTQ and non-religious individuals in your state. Such a position reeks of bigotry and prejudice. Even giving you the benefit of the doubt (that this really isn’t just an attack on LGBTQ people, but a genuine effort to secure religious freedom), let me tell you this:
There are many individuals in our society who are underrepresented and denied access to employment, housing, education, and health care. Mississippi has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates and worst education systems in the U.S. The poverty level in Mississippi is nearly 10% higher than the national average. I suggest you focus on some of these issues instead. Because there are a lot of individuals who need your help, who need to know that you are going to bat for them.
You are in a unique and privileged position. Mr. Hood, you have the ability to enact real change. I hope you do better in the future.
*Joey Hood is not actually my representative; however, my representative, Toby Barker, voted against this bill. Hence, the letter to Mr. Hood. I encourage all individuals to contact Mr. Hood (and other Mississippi representatives who voted in favor of this bill) regarding this issue.