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To Gov. Bryant: Veto Mississippi's HB 1523

On April 1, 2016, RAC Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner sent the following letter to Governor Bryant of Mississippi, urging him to veto HB 1523, legislation that, in the name of religious freedom, affirms a right to discrminate against many Mississippians, including LGBT people. Read the Op-ed by URJ Jacobs Camp Director, Anna Blumenfeld Herman, in the Clarion-Ledger in opposition to HB 1523, which was signed into law on April 5.


April 1, 2016

Governor Phil Bryant
550 High Street
Jackson, MS 39201


Dear Governor Bryant,

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose over 900 congregations includes over 1.5 million Jews across North America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis that represents over 2,000 Reform rabbis, the URJ Jacobs Summer Camp in Utica, and eight Reform Jewish synagogues encompassing over 1,400 Reform Jews in Mississippi, I write today to urge you to veto HB 1523, the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”

As a rabbi, I know personally and professionally how the United States, through our Constitution and laws, has protected, ensured and enhanced religious freedom and religious diversity, which has allowed the Jewish people to flourish in this country nearly unmatched anywhere else in the world. And as Jews remain a religious minority in our country and the state of Mississippi, we know the importance of maintaining a balance between religious freedom and the many other rights and freedoms that define who we are. This bill would have nefarious, discriminatory effects: it would irrevocably tilt the balance in favor of religious freedom against laws that protect against discrimination, without even the opportunity to assess what is the appropriate equilibrium for each situation. Moreover, this bill would make government entities and organizations receiving taxpayer-funds complicit in advancing this discrimination.

HB 1523 would permit state government employees, state contractors and grantees, as well as non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses receiving taxpayer dollars to refuse to serve – and in many cases, refuse to employ – legally married same-sex couples and their families, transgender and gender non-conforming people, and many others including single moms and survivors of sexual violence. The result would effectively be government-sanctioned and taxpayer-funded discrimination. This legislation would also allow doctors, based on their religious beliefs, to refuse services and care for counseling, fertility treatments, sex-reassignment surgery, amongst other medical needs. The bill would additionally permit schools and companies to create sex-specific policies on dress and access to bathrooms.

Our laws and Constitution already fully protect clergy and houses of worship of all faith traditions from being required to sanctify any marriage that violates their religious tenets. The Supreme Court decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and United States v. Windsor (2013) do not change that fact. The law is clear that houses of worship remain fully protected in their right to abide by the teachings of their faith and the government may neither require them to sanctify same-sex marriages nor deny them their tax-exempt status for failing to do so. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also ensures that religious organizations can hire coreligionists. But also enshrined in our Constitution and our laws is the guarantee that the government will not privilege one faith tradition or religious tenet over another.

In light of the already existent wall-to-wall support for America’s houses of worship to make decisions regarding marriage, this wide-sweeping, harmful bill permits discrimination against specific members of our community, many amongst the most vulnerable. This bill is bad for religious freedom. I urge you to veto HB 1523.



Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism