Since its inception, opponents of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have argued the bill could allow business owners to deny service to customers based on religious grounds. Supporters of the act, meanwhile, maintain it will not affect business owners or the rights of their customers.
That argument has only increased on both sides since last week, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed the act, formally known as Senate Bill 2681, into law. In opposition to that, several hundred entrepreneurs around Mississippi — including a handful in Hattiesburg — have joined “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling,” a movement designed to drive home that all customers, regardless of sexual orientation or religion, are welcome in their places of business.
John Neal, owner of the Keg & Barrel in Hattiesburg, said he felt joining the movement was simply the right thing to do, business- and family-wise.
“We are a very accepting establishment and have been since we opened,” said Neal, who opened the business in April 2005. “I never wanted the Keg & Barrel to be a place for a certain group of people — I think we have the most diverse customer base in the city, and I’m very proud of that.
“It’s also really important to me that my three young daughters realize that I won’t allow people to be discriminated against at my business.”
Neal already has a little bit of company in the Hattiesburg movement. As of Wednesday, seven other Hub City businesses had joined the cause — Oak Grove Endodontics, Affinity Retreat, Alterations by Blair, Bodybar at the America, Click Boutique and Gallery, JavaWerks Coffee & Tea and PoppyART.
“It’s a pretty easy movement to join — I couldn’t ever imagine discriminating against any patient or anyone that needed my services,” said Dr. Carla Webb, owner of Oak Grove Endodontics. “It’s not good business, it’s not a kind thing to do, and I really think there’s no good that can come from acting like that.”
“If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” is the brainchild of Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery in Jackson, who said he came up with the idea after hearing about a baker who was opposed to making a wedding cake for a gay couple. Moore said it seemed to him like lawmakers were using business owners like himself as an excuse to push the bill.
“(The politicians) were like, ‘We need to protect bakers who don’t want to make cakes for gay people,’” he said. “Well, I’m a baker, but none of the politicians called me, and none of the politicians asked for my permission to speak on my behalf. They didn’t look into the opinions of anybody who services the wedding industry … they just went ahead and did this thing, and used us as a patsy.
“My business is very important to me — it’s how I make a living, it’s how I provide for my wife and my child — and I don’t let anybody speak for my business.”
Businesses that support the movement can choose to display a vinyl sticker in their windows that reads, “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.” The decals are issued by Equality Mississippi, a social justice group that has partnered with the movement.
Melanie Deas, member of the board of directors at Equality Mississippi, said the organization already has issued 500 of the stickers, with another set currently in production.
“It’s been an amazingly fast response,” she said. “It’s very encouraging, and it’s wonderful to see small businesses in particular stepping up. It’s definitely spreading.”
So far, it seems to be working out in favor of the business owners. Neal said although business hasn’t really changed one way or the other, he’s received a ton of positive feedback from his customers.
“We’ve had a lot of feedback via Facebook, all of it positive,” he said. “This topic is just being reported (recently), so we’ll see if there is any negative feedback, but if there is, I would say it will be minimum at best. But I’d say there’s been no effect at this point — I think our customers expect us to be on the forefront of issues like these.”
The bill stirred up a lot of debate in the Legislature, but proponents insist it is not meant to allow discrimination.
“This has been passed by 18 other states, and has been in federal law for years and years with no issues, no discrimination,” said House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton. “It does not discriminate, but what it does do is protect people from discrimination, religious people in the state of Mississippi.”
Blair Wall, owner of Alterations by Blair, also feels that her customers will be on the same page as her regarding the issue.
“I’m pretty sure that most of my customers would be supportive, or at least I would hope so,” she said. “I’m sure that some of the customers that come in here are part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, so I would guess they would definitely be in support of it.”