North Carolina, Mississippi measures have companions pending elsewhere in U.S.
(CNN) — A battle is shaping up across the country over various pieces of legislation that proponents argue protects religious beliefs while others argue are tools to discriminate.
Despite the ferocious attention paid to newly passed laws in Mississippi and North Carolina, nearly 200 bills have been proposed in legislatures in 2016 that could lead to discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people, according to Eunice Rho with the American Civil Liberties Union.
About 100 of those bills invoke religion or religious beliefs as justification to refuse services to gay people. Others don’t mention religion but could result in discrimination, she said.
Kansas passed a law this year allowing campus religious groups to restrict membership to students based on faith, Rho added.
Some of the legislation is, in part, a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, said Victoria Kirby York, the national campaign director at the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“This isn’t just the South; the effort to exclude and separate is happening everywhere,” York said.
She has traveled the country speaking with people of all backgrounds to get a feel for why there has been such a tremendous surge in bills seeking, in some way, to separate groups of people. She spoke to CNN on Wednesday after leaving North Carolina.
“I think this is happening in some ways because we’re in an election year, and self-interested politicians are using religion as a tool [to stir up base support],” she said. “It’s too bad. It’s going to affect real people in serious ways.”
Here are three states that have recently passed religion-oriented laws:
In late March, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation that allows campus religious groups to restrict membership to students that follow a religion. Critics said it will lead to discrimination on publicly funded college campuses, the Wichita Eagle reports.
In 2015, Brownback, a Republican, issued an executive order doing away with a previous order that provided protections to state employees facing discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. He said his order would protect all Kansans without creating “protected classes.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he signed a religious freedom bill this week to “protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government.”
Gay rights groups have blasted the move as legalized discrimination. MGM Resorts International, Nissan, Toyota and Tyson Foods are among the corporations that have denounced the legislation.
They aren’t alone. Community leaders, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a revered civil rights activist, called the law “hateful.”
But Bryant has big-name backers, too. That includes Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, who has tweeted his support for Bryant.
That’s not Graham’s only supportive tweet. He’s also signaled his approve for Gov. Pat McCroy of North Carolina, which approved the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, known as the “bathroom bill.” It bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex.
Critics say it discriminates against transgender individuals and puts them in danger. The law was a response to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance that, among other things, made it possible for transgender individuals to use public bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
“Transgender people are already assaulted in bathrooms they must use that don’t match the gender they present,” Kirby York said. “This law will only further endanger them.”
The law is already creating a fierce divide among North Carolina leaders.
For example, state Attorney General Roy Cooper said he wouldn’t defend the law and called it “a national embarrassment” as he spoke in March to more than 80 CEOs and executives who co-signed a letter to McCrory urging the law’s repeal. Among the big players who signed: Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Pfizer and Marriott.
The economic fallout from the law continued in a big way. On Tuesday, PayPal became the first to yank its critical business from the state in protest. PayPal said it won’t open its facility in Charlotte which was expected to employ 400 people.
The battle appears headed to court, too.
In late March, McCrory and other state officials were slapped with a federal lawsuit over the new law. Two transgender men, a lesbian, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and Equality North Carolina want a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and a violation of federal laws banning sex discrimination.
Some measures that have cited religion or others reasons have been shot down at varying stages or are on the cusp of becoming law. They include:
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam may have to decide whether to sign into law a measure under consideration that would allow therapists and counselors with “sincerely held” religious beliefs to reject gay, lesbian and transgender clients.
Professionals spoke out this week against the bill, arguing that it violates the American Counseling Association ethics code which prohibits a therapist imposing his or her beliefs.
Republican Sen. Jack Johnson sponsored the bill. “I can’t express enough how this is not about discrimination but designed to prevent discrimination against counselors with strongly held beliefs,” he said.
The bill, he said, is meant to “get people the proper care they need from the counselors that are best able to provide the care they need.”
The Family Action Council of Tennessee is in support of the bill. On its website, the council said: “This is an important bill to safeguard a counselor or therapist’s religious beliefs and moral convictions. It protects the right of conscience of the counselor but also allows the clients to receive treatment from someone who is better suited to treat them.”
Some mental health professionals said they would maintain an inclusive practice regardless of whether the bill becomes law. Versions of the bill are shuttling between both chambers of the Legislature, where it has seen strong support.
“Therapists are supposed to create an atmosphere where clients are able to feel comfortable and open,” said Adam Marshall, a therapist in Germantown, Tennessee.
It could be a significant problem if a client opens up in a session and then is automatically rejected because of his or her sexual orientation, he said. “[It] will cause more damage to the client.”
The measure could have financial reverberations in the home state of country music.
Country Music Television, which is based in Nashville, is a subsidiary of Viacom and has nearly 400 employees in the area.
“Viacom and CMT have a deep commitment to tolerance, diversity and inclusion, and discriminatory laws like HB2414 and SB2387 are inconsistent with our values,” Viacom spokesperson T.J. Ducklo told CNN. “As proud members of Tennessee’s welcoming and vibrant business community, we implore state lawmakers to reject these proposals.”
Also in the South, there was another battle that brewed and fizzled in Georgia.
Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that allowed faith-based organizations the option to deny services and jobs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Major corporations such as Disney said it would stop filming in the state, which has become a major location site for the movie and TV industries, if the measure passed. Unilever said it would rethink investing, and a slew of Fortune 500 companies based in Atlanta, such as Home Depot, were vocal opponents.
“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been a part of for all of our lives,” the governor said, explaining why he rejected the bill.
Deal said his decision was not a reaction to pressure from any side of the debate.
It was “about the character of our state and the character of our people,” he said. “Georgia is a welcoming state.”