HB 1523 won't stop Bay-Waveland students fighting discrimination

Before Mississippi's 'religious freedom' bill hit the headlines, Bay-Waveland Middle School student Amaya Clark and her team partner, Gabrielle Barbino, drafted a bill that banned discrimination in the workplace against the state's LGBT community.

Gifted students Amaya and Gabrielle conceived and wrote the bill for Mississippi's Youth & Government Program, designed to teach junior and senior high students through activities about the workings of state government. They will be presenting their bill, and trying to get it passed, at a mock legislative session that begins Thursday in Jackson.

HB 1523, the 'religious freedom' bill Gov. Phil Bryant recently signed into law, allows businesses, religious organizations and government employees to refuse service to members of the LGBT community rather than compromise their religious beliefs.

Amaya was surprised and sad when she heard the bill originated in the House -- after she and her eighth-grade classmate drafted their LGBT non-discrimination bill.

"It doesn't make (the state) look very good, that's for sure," she said. "I thought that we were advancing in equality for people and then that was a setback, and not necessarily advancing."

The "religious freedom" bill only motivated the girls to work harder on their nondiscrimination law. Amaya pulled more information to buttress their anti-discrimination argument.

The bill she and Gabrielle drafted is called the Act to Ban Workplace Discrimination Against LGBT People in Mississippi. It calls for a $30,000 fine for employers who discriminate against members of the LGBT community.

"Most of my classmates are very accepting of my bill and are like, 'This is a good bill,'" she said. "I have one classmate who is completely against my bill and wants nothing to do with it, but the rest of them are very accepting of it and hope it's going to happen."

She's expecting plenty of pushback when she presents the bill in a legislative committee.

"Even when we're practicing our debating," she said, " we have this one guy who will give every reason he can against our bill. There are going to be people like him who think like him.

"He gives Biblical reasons, like, 'In the Bible it says this and you can't go against this,' but then we have my other classmates who are like, "Well, it also says you can't judge,' so that put him out."

Amaya said: "My best arguments for (the bill) are that everyone deserves their own rights and we're supposed to separate the church and state, and we've been arguing for equality for everyone for a long time. We shouldn't just set somebody out because of our own beliefs."

She has statistics about LGBT discrimination, gathered from government websites, to bolster her argument. In Mississippi, she said, 60,000 people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered are in the workplace. Over the past five years, she found, 38 percent of gays and lesbians, and 47 percent of transgender people, were harassed in the workplace, and 12 percent lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Amaya's mother, Sarah Morgan, said, "I've very proud of Amaya. When she told me the issue she took on, I was proud of her. She's very kind and compassionate. Morgan added: "I'm nervous as her mother about how it's going to be up there. This is a hot topic and some people are fanatical. It's a long shot, but she's prepared."

Some bills that have gone through the mock legislature have actually been signed into law. Amaya likes to think her nondiscrimination bill might one day pass the state Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant will sign it into law.

With the right persuasion, she believes, anyone can have a change of heart.

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