Politics & Government

'Religious freedom' bill hit one Coast mayor 'like a hurricane'

McDermott
McDermott SUN HERALD

Nobody sought Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott's input about conjuring up a bill that would could potentially cause discrimination against the LGBT community.

Three days after Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523, dubbed the "religious liberty" bill, it has been the talk of the small town, a town that depends heavily on tourists and visitors from New Orleans. McDermott said he's not in favor of the bill "at all."

"It's caused a s--- storm, is what it has done," he said. "Nobody told us a hurricane was coming until it passed us."

McDermott said the bill does not reflect the residents of his city. Locals are young and old, rich and poor, and come from several ethnic backgrounds, McDermott said. After all, prominent LGBT figures also have Pass Christian ties. News anchor Robin Roberts is proud of her Pass Christian hometown, and her sister Dorothy just opened a boutique on Davis Avenue. In a 1997 interview on ABC's "20/20," comedian Ellen Degeneres told a journalist she told her mother she was a lesbian while they were walking along the beach in the Pass.

"There's more diversity here than anywhere else," McDermott said. "We are not discriminating against anybody here."

Rick Webb, 64, of Gulfport pickets in front of Harrison County courthouse in Gulfport in favor of HB 1523.

The mayor's non-support of HB 1523 mirrors the opinions of several mayors across South Mississippi.

Just over the bridge in Bay St. Louis, Mayor Les Fillingame said diversity is what makes the Bay tick.

"Bay St. Louis has got a well-documented record of non-discrimination at all levels, and I think the that community is going to stand behind those principals," he said.

The bill will also not change business in Long Beach.

"The city of Long Beach has not and will not discriminate," Mayor Billy Skellie said. "We are a very diverse community and we always have been. We hope this legislation will not have a negative impact on the Coast."

Local Mississippians gather in front of the Biloxi Visitor's Center on Friday, April 8, 2016, to protest HB 1523. The "Religious Freedom Act" allows public and private services to be denied to gay individuals and couples based on religious beliefs

Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich was one of the first Coast mayors to object to the legislation and put a resolution against it on Tuesday's agenda even before the governor had signed the bill into law.

He said the cities and casinos didn't have any communication from Jackson about the legislation.

"The people who probably get hurt the worst weren't consulted," he said.

"It's not just a perception problem. It's an issue," he said. If the city's casino revenue and tourism drops because of the state, he said, Biloxi will have to look at what action the city can take.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said the bill is unnecessary.

"It is nothing more than codified discrimination," she said. "This just set us back to the 1960s. We're just moving a sense of bigotry from race to sexual identity.

"Freedom of religious expression is every individual's right, but it has no place in government."

Moran said she has spoken with every mayor on the Coast, and they agree HB 1523 is not representative of South Mississippi.

"We are proud of our cultural heritage, our diversity," she said. "This does not define who we are, and we just want to tell the world that we welcome everyone to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and we hope we can continue to welcome visitors to our fair state and particularly the Coast."

Pascagoula Mayor Jim Blevins said his city doesn't condone discrimination of any kind and worried about the economic consequences.

"I realize what HB 1523 is trying to do but it's going to have a significant economic impact on  the state, and that is something we can't afford to have happen," he said. "Some of those consequences are already being realized with businesses not wanting to come here and certainly our visitors and tourism is going to be impacted and that's something we work very hard on to grow."

He added, "I certainly remain proud of the state of Mississippi, and Pascagoula and we would like people to know that this bill does not reflect the hospitality upon which we base our reputation here in Pascagoula. I stand with what some of our sister mayors and cities are doing and we'll gladly welcome anyone in Pascagoula to live work or play in our area."

Waveland Mayor Mike Smith said the city adopted an anti-discrimination resolution in 2013 that protects the LGBT community in Waveland from any type of discrimination.

"We will not tolerate discrimination," he said. "The Coast is full of diverse culture anyway, so we welcome anyone and everyone."

Mayor Billy Hewes released a statement in the wake of the new law, saying Gulfport invites "everyone" to discover the city that is "open for business and geared for a good time." However, when asked later how he felt about the passage of the bill, he responded with, "I'm done."

Jennifer Noble of Cheeky Monkey Cake Company in D'Iberville on HB 1523 and the wedding cake controversy

Mayors of other Coast cities were contacted but were not available for comment.

Mary Perez, reporter at the SunHerald, contributed to this report.

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