JACKSON, Miss. — Michelle Obama criticized Mississippi’s newly-signed religious freedom bill on Saturday during her commencement speech at Jackson State University, painting it to be antithetical to the civil rights movement and societal “progress.”
“We see it right here in Mississippi—just two weeks ago—how swiftly progress can hurtle backward,” she told students during her speech. “How easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love.”
As previously reported, last month, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, which prohibits the government from punishing those who pass up forms of participation in marital events for religious reasons.
“The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person wholly or partially on the basis that the person has provided or declined to provide … services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, formation, celebration, or recognition of any marriage, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction,” it reads in part.
The bill only pertains to events and does not permit the refusal of service in general. It also requires restroom use to correlate with birth gender.
“If we fail to exercise our fundamental right to vote, then I guarantee that so much of the progress we’ve fought for will be under threat,” Obama remarked on Saturday. “Congress will still be gridlocked. Statehouses will continue to roll back voting rights and write discrimination into the law.”
Amid citing that the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium used to only be used by whites at one time and that “what was essentially a pro-Jim Crow rally” was once held at the location as well, she lumped same-sex and gender identity issues into the African American civil rights movement.
“So we’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu immigrant, Native American—because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African Americans, it’s about all Americans,” Obama said.
“It’s about making things more just, more equal, more free for all our kids and grandkids,” she stated. “That’s the story you all have the opportunity to write. That’s what this historic university has prepared you to do.”
Bryant had defended his signing of the law by noting that it “merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
“Mississippians from all walks of life believe that the government shouldn’t punish someone because of their views on marriage,” also stated Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek. “After all, you’re not free if your beliefs are confined to your mind. What makes America unique is our freedom to peacefully live out those beliefs, and the Constitution protects that freedom.”
An estimated 35,000 people flocked to hear Obama speak at the university, including approximately 800 graduates.