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by Loren G. Edelstein | May 2, 2016

Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights CampaignLoren G. Edelstein
Many organizations are grappling with decisions
on whether to cancel or avoid booking events in Mississippi and North Carolina, based on new legislation that could be perceived as discriminatory to the LGBT or transgender community. M&C reached out to the Human Rights Campaign for more insight on such policies, and advice on how meeting planners can stay abreast of similar legislation under consideration in other states. Following is the resulting Q&A with Sarah Warbelow, HRC’s legal director, who leads the organization’s team of lawyers and fellows focused on federal, state and municipal policy.

M&C: A number of states have existing Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Does that mean those states essentially have legalized discrimination?

Sarah Warbelow: No, it does not. RFRAs have a long and complicated history. For the early adopters of such laws, including Connecticut and Illinois, these were bipartisan efforts and were not intended to undermine civil rights. It’s only recently that conservative groups have seen that as a loophole and added wording that allows for discrimination. 

How are House Bill 1523 in North Carolina  and HB2 in Mississippi different than religious freedom laws in other states?

They are uniquely bad in that they explicitly take rights away from LGBT people and explicitly allow for discrimination. In North Carolina, there’s not even a hint of an attempt at a balancing act. It says that, absolutely, transgender people cannot access restrooms consistent with their gender identity in government or public buildings, and that includes libraries, schools, courthouses, convention centers, airports and so forth. It also stripped away people’s ability to file discrimination suits in state court. To file a discrimination suit, they would have to take it to the federal level, which is more complicated and certainly more expensive. 

In Mississippi, the law is a little different. It says that religious organizations and for-profit businesses can’t be penalized for their belief that marriage is only recognized as a union between a man and a woman, and that sex can take place only within such a union. That allows discrimination against single mothers, in addition to lesbian and gay couples. It allows such businesses to refuse services based on those grounds. A religious hospital in Mississippi has the right to refuse to treat a gay man who has just learned he has cancer, or not to keep his husband informed of treatment because their marriage is not recognized.

Similar bills are currently being considered in a number of other states. What should this mean to meeting professionals who would avoid choosing states that might pass such laws?

I would advise a meeting planner to be aware that things change from year to year. We are now coming to the end of many states' legislative sessions, meaning that nothing more is likely to happen this year. But be prepared to start asking questions again next January. If they’re considering a state where anti-LGBT legislation is at play, it’s important to monitor the situation and see if the bill gains traction.

What states currently have anti-LGBT bills being considered?

It’s important to remember that this changes frequently, and in many cases they will be quickly shot down. But now we are keeping an eye on Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio. 

Who should they be asking about the status of those bills?

Many organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, are happy to help planners make sure there are nondiscrimination laws on the books to cover all kinds of factors, including discrimination based on race and religion. Local or national LGBT organizations, or civil rights organizations, continually monitor these kinds of things. 

Do you think the new laws in either Mississippi or North Carolina will be overturned?

North Carolina had called a special session to pass HB2. Legislators were given only five minutes between being given the final copy of the bill and being asked to make a decision to sign it. North Carolina’s legislature is still in session, and HB2 is one of the top issues that will be addressed within the next six to 12 weeks. We are certainly hoping it will be overturned.  

Is there anything else you would advise meeting planners from a human rights perspective?

We encourage meeting and conference planners to think about the whole picture. First and foremost, you want your attendees to feel safe, welcome and comfortable wherever they are.