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For Mississippi law, it’s conscience vs. nondiscrimination

JACKSON, Miss. — Some Mississippians say a new law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people is needed protection for Christians who adhere to traditional views of marriage and gender roles.

But others, including executives at several large companies, say Republican Governor Phil Bryant’s decision to sign the bill amounts to discrimination, even if they find same-sex marriage morally offensive.

It’s a debate that has played out across the United States after the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage. It has intensified since Georgia’s governor vetoed a similar proposal, and since North Carolina’s governor signed a bill that bans cities from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances and requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to their sex at birth.

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In Tennessee, a bill that would allow mental health counselors to turn patients away based on the counselors’ religious beliefs and personal principles has passed in the House. The Senate, which already passed the measure, still would have to approve an amendment adopted by the House.

The bill passed 68 to 22 Wednesday following a rancorous debate on the House floor. If it is signed into law, Tennessee would be the only state to allow counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the counselors’ belief systems, said Art Terrazas, director of Government Affairs for the American Counseling Association. The organization has called the bill an ‘‘unprecedented attack’’ on the counseling profession and government overreach.

One law expert said Wednesday that parts of Mississippi’s law may violate the First Amendment by favoring particular religious beliefs. He warned other parts of the law may violate the 14th Amendment’s requirement for equal protection by imposing a stigma on same-sex marriage.

‘‘This violates their constitutional rights in so many ways,’’ said George Cochran, a constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi. He called it a ‘‘nasty, vindictive piece of legislation.’’

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‘‘This is open season on LGBT groups,’’ Cochran said. ‘‘I don’t think this bill left out any way to discriminate against them.’’

Still, some say the law is necessary to protect their beliefs.

‘‘I feel like while you can’t take rights away from one person, you can’t take rights away from someone else,’’ said Jennifer Hazlewood, a 40-year-old Brandon resident. She felt the law was needed because traditional Christian values are being eroded. ‘‘Our rights to believe the way we believe, I don’t feel are protected.’’

Others said the law is a license to discriminate.

‘‘I feel like it’s wrong to turn down someone for service because of their sexuality because it makes them feel unimportant, and more important, it makes them feel like they’re not worthy of being an American in the same place as everybody else,’’ said Tyler Willis, a 22-year-old Walmart worker.

Attacks on the law mounted Wednesday. The only Democrat in Mississippi’s congressional delegation asked US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to sue to block the measure. A spokeswoman for Lynch didn’t immediately respond.

Executives for General Electric Co., Dow Chemical Co., PepsiCo Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Hyatt Hotels Corp., Choice Hotels International Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and Whole Foods Market Inc. called for the law’s repeal in a letter released by the Human Rights Campaign.