Locals react to controversial new state law

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, April 7, 2016

By Stephanie Rebman, Rob Sigler and  Alyssa Schnugg


Gov. Phil Bryant’s decision to sign a bill into law that allows some private businesses and religious groups to not serve fellow residents based on moral grounds has sparked frustrations among Oxford and Lafayette County residents.

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Whether it’s on social media or in the hallways at work, residents were discussing Bryant’s approval of a law that could wind up leaving gay and transgender people without the same opportunities as those in traditional marriages.

The law is slated to take effect July 1.

On a city level, Mayor Pat Patterson and the Board of Aldermen were disappointed with the decision out of the state capitol.

“We want to make it clear we reject discrimination of any kind and we want to reaffirm the facilities and services of the city of Oxford are open to all residents and visitors,” Patterson said. “We intend to treat everyone with civility, dignity and respect and we believe that’s the hallmark of our community.”

The county will continue to do its part to issue marriage licenses, even though if a clerk objects for religious beliefs, the clerk could choose not to issue the license. However, someone on staff who does not object, would be required to grant the license.

Adrienne Garner, deputy clerk with the Lafayette County Circuit Court, said the business of issuing marriage licenses will continue as usual, no matter their gender.

“I don’t have any objections,” to issuing licenses to same-sex couple.

Garner said her office has issued a “good many” licenses to same-sex couples since the law was put into place, but didn’t have an exact count.

“I don’t think anyone here has had any objections to issuing them either,” she said.


Reaction from two large business associations that had released statements opposing the bill was muted late Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

“The Mississippi Manufacturers Association’s position continues to reflect the concerns manufacturers have with this bill and its potential to conflict with their policies of diversity and inclusion. However, the MMA respects the wishes of the legislature and governor,” one trade group said.

Locally, businesses from a range of sectors took note of the ruling, but the majority said it had no bearing on how they run their business. Joey Brent, local photographer, said his services are open to all people.

“No matter where somebody fits in the world, hetero or LGBT or black or white, the money is green …  I am just saying that in most all cases I don’t see myself refusing a client, unless I do not have the expertise in an area of photography they want done,” he said.

Jean Abrams with Castle Hill, which performs wedding ceremonies at the Colonel’s Quarters in Oxford, believes the new law will have an adverse affect on the state but not on her business.

“I understand that Gov. Bryant believes the new law is meant to allow people the right to exercise their religious freedom,” Abrams said. “However, it appears that it will allow discrimination in the name of religious freedom. Our state has made great strides in the last few years, but I am afraid this will negatively affect us economically and politically.”

Abrams does not see the new law impacting her business negatively.

“The new law will not have any impact on wedding ceremonies at Castle Hill, as we have never discriminated against anyone due to race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation or nationality,” Abrams said.

Although they have not performed any non-traditional wedding ceremonies to date, Abrams said they have been approached once regarding a gay marriage being held at Castle Hill “and they were made aware of our non-discriminatory policy.”

Oxford real estate agent Jody Black said he is open for business regardless.

“I value and appreciate all of my clients regardless of what their personal lives involve,” he said. “It’s just not good business to only do with business with certain people and not everyone. If any business or public official plans on discriminating against anyone at all, they should have to make that a public announcement and display it for the public to see. HB 1523 is a step backwards for Mississippi and I am disappointed.”

What about the local draw to Oxford?

After word of the ruling spread throughout the country, news reports surfaced of several state governors banning non-essential travel to Mississippi, so what does that mean for tourism in Oxford?

Melanie Addington, director of the Oxford Film Festival, which draws in people from across the country to Oxford annually, said the agency is deeply troubled and disheartened by the passage.

“It is morally reprehensible,” she said. “The Oxford Film Festival’s mission is not only to entertain with independent cinema but to enlighten with a range of diverse voices. We are committed to making sure the voices of our LGBT friends are heard and better served in this state and, toward that end, we are adding a new LGBT series to our February film festival. We are proud to stand with so many in Mississippi who are working to build a more promising, more enlightened, and open state for all.

“Please join us and encourage your friends not to abandon our state in its time of need but, instead, to stand up and be heard.”

Another major draw to the community is the University of Mississippi, and the school’s chancellor, Jeffrey Vitter, stepped up Tuesday with a letter to students to answer questions about how the law might affect campus operations.

“I am writing to reaffirm that the mission and values of the University of Mississippi have not changed,” he said. “Our primary purpose is to be an academic institution that creates, evaluates, shares and applies knowledge in a free, open, and inclusive environment of intellectual inquiry.”

Vitter mentioned the members of the university at campuses throughout the state have a variety of people whether it is sex, age, religions, political perspectives, physical abilities, political perspectives and much more.

“Diversity is a hallmark of education and enriches the environment and experiences of all our campus constituents,” he said. “We will always support all members of our community and uphold the UM Creed, which calls on us to respect the dignity of each person.”

In the church

The Rev. Joe Tonos, pastor, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church said he supports the spirit of the law and religious exemptions, as long as the reasons behind someone’s actions are truly spiritual.

He remembered a time when his church was on the other end of someone’s religious objections.

“We contracted with someone to blacktop our church parking lot,” Tonos said. “We had the price and date to start set and then he asked, ‘Where is this again?’ And when I told him he said it was against his religion to do anything for the Roman Catholics. He was afraid he was going to hell — that’s a mortal fear. Is it wrongheaded? Yeah, but it’s a very real fear.”

Tonos said most of the Christian faith feel homosexuality is a mortal sin and by performing a marriage, they feel they will go to Hell or send someone else to Hell and that no one should be forced to feel that kind of fear.

“Not allowing a black person inside a store for a milkshake is motivated out of hate and ignorance,” he said. “That’s a completely different issue. There’s no religious reason to say a black person can’t go into a store or a movie theater.”