Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
"If you're buying, we're selling."
Back in February, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to "exercise their religious beliefs" by discriminating against LGBT people. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, however, proudly put his signature on a similar piece of legislation earlier this month. It will go into effect July 1.
The proponents of Mississippi’s SB2681, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, claim that it is more narrowly tailored than the controversial Arizona proposal. But civil rights advocates say it clears a path for anti-gay discrimination. "The law could still open the door for someone who wants to use their religion to discriminate against others," according to the Mississippi branch of the ACLU . "Mississippi legislators rejected language that would have explicitly prohibited religion from being used to excuse discrimination."
Many business owners in Mississippi's urban centers are pushing back, saying they want no part of the new law. Mitchell Moore, who owns Campbell’s Bakery in the city’s revitalized Fondren neighborhood, made stickers that local merchants could display in their windows to make it clear how they felt about the bill. "I'm in a business to sell a product, and I want to sell that product to everybody, and I don’t care what you do in your life," Moore told MSNBC.
In Mississippi, with its troubled civil rights legacy, the fight against LGBT discrimination has a special resonance. Cities such as Jackson, gutted by white flight after desegregation, are trying to move forward into a new era by attracting young artists and professionals to move. Neighborhoods like Fondren are coming back, thanks in part to an up-and-coming generation of business owners who are explicitly inclusive of all different types of people.
Working with the LGBT rights group Equality Mississippi, Moore and other business owners designed stickers that say, "We Don’t Discriminate: If You're Buying, We're Selling."
Eddie Outlaw, who owns a hair salon in Fondren and is an outspoken activist for LGBT rights in the state, says the response to the campaign has been immediate and overwhelming. "We're close to 500 decals distributed so far with another 500 being printed right now," he writes in an email. "We've gotten so many requests that we've divided Mississippi up and assigned 'pickup zones' to keep the cost of postage manageable. College towns are leading the requests, as well as the Gulf Coast area."
College towns were in the vanguard of the fight for LGBT rights even before SB2681's passage. In the last few months, the cities of Oxford (home to the University of Mississippi), Starkville (Mississippi State), and Hattiesburg (University of Southern Mississippi) all passed “inclusivity resolutions” that disavow anti-gay discrimination.
The latest setback has only energized civil-rights advocates in Mississippi, who are now helping like-minded people in other states as well. Outlaw says that a group in Oklahoma, where an anti-gay religious freedom bill has been kicking around the legislature, has requested 500 "We Don't Discriminate" stickers for distribution to businesses there.
"The response has been incredibly positive," says Outlaw. "Mississippians are taking a stand against discrimination of any kind, and I'm proud to be a part of a business community united in that fight."