By the Way

Why doesn’t anyone care about Mississippi?

Deborah Watkins, left, and Anita Twiner of Long Beach apply for a marriage license at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport on June 29, 2015.
Deborah Watkins, left, and Anita Twiner of Long Beach apply for a marriage license at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport on June 29, 2015. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

Late Thursday night, just moments before it was set to go into effect, Judge Carlton Reeves struck down HB 1523, Mississippi’s so-called “religious freedom” law.

The law wasn’t a small thing. It was sweeping legislation that would have allowed public officials, private citizens and businesses to refuse any number of services — from cake baking and wedding photography to medical treatment, marriage licenses and adoption services — to LGBT couples and individuals.

It was legislation that protected only a very specific set of Christian beliefs: That marriage was between one man and one woman, that sex was permissible only within such a marriage and that people must be treated as the gender they were at birth.

Nor was Reeves’ 60-page opinion in any way tepid or equivocating.

The Obama federal appointee from Texas took Mississippi to task for putting “its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others.”

Not only is it privileging Christianity over other religions, he said, it is privileging one form of Christianity over the others.

And he concluded “while religious freedom was one of the buildings blocks of this great nation,” HB 1523 “does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”

In Mississippi, the governor said he would appeal. Evangelical Christian groups decried the ruling. The attorney general issued a blistering statement against HB 1523. And LGBT advocates celebrated.

The rest of the country would have yawned. If they’d noticed.

On Saturday morning, CNN promoted an extensive segment celebrating major “wins for the LGBT community from the battlefield” — that would be the military’s announcement it would let transgender individuals serve openly — “to the bathroom,” meaning the repeal of one minor portion of HB2, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”

Correspondents didn’t mention that a major LGBT bill had just been overturned in the stroke of a judge’s pen.

No matter what side of the issue you are on, HB 1523 is no less important to the country than HB2 in North Carolina. It is no more minor that the proposed laws in Georgia or Indiana or the actions of a circuit clerk in Kentucky that outraged the entire country.

Leaving it standing would have set no less of a precedent on what is considered religious freedom. Tearing it down restores no fewer rights to the LGBT community.

This is not sour grapes by some reporters who wanted their story shared nationally.

This is about a gay bar owner in Biloxi who told me about the decades-long fights gays and lesbians have endured on the Coast — legal and sometimes physical. It is about a churchgoer who believes — sincerely and with all his or heart — that religious rights are being violated and isn’t sure why the country isn’t listening.

It’s about a state with a history of discrimination — whether you choose to call it heritage or not — where fights over race, the Confederate flag and LGBT rights seem to converge.

Molly Kester, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Alliance, said the group’s next battles would be making sure transgender students had adequate bathroom accommodations and taking on the Confederate battle emblem in the state’s flag.

Benjamin Morris, the author who bicycled down Mississippi to protest HB1523, told me he did so because “Mississippians, of all people, have a special responsibility to fight discrimination wherever it’s seen.”

Reeves, who is black, said as much when he drew a direct line between HB 1523 and the state’s past. He compared Gov. Phil Bryant’s statements with Gov. J.P. Coleman’s statements against Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954.

Think whatever you want about Mississippi’s history. Or its present.

Just acknowledge the people here , fighting the same fights as others around the country and wondering if anyone will ever notice.

Regina Zilbermints: 228-896-2340, @RZilbermints

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