Sanderson Farms believes a bill in Mississippi that would protect people who deny employment or business services to a person based on their sexual orientation or identification is bad for the state and should not become law.
The bill in question – Mississippi House Bill 1523 – is presented as the Religious Liberties Accomodations Act, or the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. It was previously deemed unconstitutional, but that ruling is now being revisited in a federal appeals court. Sanderson Farms joined a group of other friends of the court who have filed a brief that advocates that the original ruling be upheld.
“We don’t know how many of our 13,000 employees are impacted by that bill, but we felt we had an obligation to stand up where we could to make sure that all of them get to practice their constitutional rights,” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer of Sanderson Farms.
Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry company in the United States, is headquartered in Laurel, Mississippi. It is the only Fortune 1000 company headquartered in the state.
What is HB 1523?
The bill is considered by many to be the state’s reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling on the Obergefell v. Hodges case, that stated same-sex couples have the right to marry.
While the bill was written to enable Mississippians the right to not do business with someone whose lifestyle is inconsistent with the sincerely held religious beliefs of the people the bill is designed to protect, the text of HB 1523 barely goes beyond targeting members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The only others targeted by the law are heterosexuals who have had pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations.
Section 2 of the bill states that the beliefs protected under the legislation are that:
- Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman
- Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage
- Male or female refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth
The history of HB 1523 and Sanderson Farms’ reaction
In the first session of the Mississippi Legislature after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, the House took up its Religious Liberties Accomodations Act. Once the House passed it, the Mississippi Senate passed it with amendments, and the amended version was approved by the House shortly after that.
During that time, Cockrell said, Sanderson Farms leaders discussed the bill and came to the conclusion that it was a bad one.
It was never a matter of whether the company’s leaders approved of homosexuality, being transgender, or fornication. It was about protecting the rights of those who were targeted.
Referring to Sanderson Farms’ 13,000 employees, Cockrell said: “Every single one of them has the right to freely practice, we think, constitutionally what they believe. They have a right to do that in an unencumbered way and that’s true with not just those with whom we agree, but those we disagree with as well. House Bill 1523 kind of prefers one over another, and it is Constitutional law 101 that a state cannot do that.”
The company even discussed it at a board meeting – and how it should voice opposition to it -- before it went to the governor’s office to be signed into law, Cockrell said. But Gov. Phil Bryant quickly signed the bill before Sanderson Farms really had a chance to do so, Cockrell added.
Like most bills in Mississippi, HB 1523 was not to go into effect until early July, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year. Right before it was to become law, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled it unconstitutional.
Bryant would go on to appeal that ruling, and the case is now being considered in a federal court.
Sanderson Farms was contacted by the lawyers who were drafting the brief and was asked if it would be interested in joining the brief. Sanderson Farms was interested, and joined a diverse group that included investment firms, a retail establishment, a retired farmer, a media and graphic design firm and homosexual couples.
Ecomonic impact on Mississippi
Cockrell said the company believes that HB 1523, even though it hasn’t become law, has hurt the state in terms of economic development. If it does become law, it could have an even worse impact.
It has already hurt the state in terms of tourism, he said, with several states disallowing state-sponsored travel to Mississippi because of the legislation.
“You can measure that,” Cockrell said. “What you can’t measure is how many people just struck Mississippi off the list. … Were we in the running for a new plant? Maybe we were but they quietly took Mississippi off the list. The same is true of people whether it was a teacher or a doctor or pharmacist or an hourly worker that said I want to move, but I don’t want to move there. You’ll never know how many of those there are out there.”
History of discrimination revisited
The legal brief compares the state government’s action on LGBT rights to its action on rights of African-Americans during the civil rights period of the 1950s and 1960s.
Just like the State of Mississippi enacted legislation during that era that defied the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, it has now drafted HB 1523 in defiance of Obergefell v. Hodges.
Cockrell said Sanderson Farms sees the similarities.
“That brief is painful to read in that respect, because it reminds us of that. So many of us -- me included -- absolutely love this state and we’ve lived here all our lives. The three top executives of this company certainly fall under that category, and we’ve lived through that. It was painful then and it’s painful to read now,” said Cockrell.
“The state has tried to throw up roadblocks in the past for different groups to exercise their constitutional rights, and HB 1523 is a roadblock for another group to exercise their Constitutional rights. I think the brief was right to kind of rehash all of that, because this, in our view, is another example of an attempt to do that.”