ABC Anchor on Mississippi Law: Equal Treatment for Everyone

By JEFF AMY

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Robin Roberts said Friday that "it hurts my soul" that someone might not be welcome in Mississippi because of a law saying religious groups and some private businesses can cite moral beliefs to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

The tourism industry in a place that calls itself the "Hospitality State" has been getting slammed with criticism after Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law Tuesday, saying he wanted to protect freedom of conscience for religious people.

Some opponents to the law have pointed out the incongruity that the co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America," with roots in the Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, is on the cover of this year's guide published by the private Mississippi Tourism Association. Roberts hasn't been shy about her love for Amber Laign since announcing on the last day of 2013 that she's lesbian.

"My longtime partner, Amber, and I have always felt welcomed in my home state, and it hurts my soul to think of anyone not feeling welcome," Roberts said in the statement. "It's always been a deeply held belief of mine that everyone, everywhere should be treated equally. I'm proud that my beloved mother and father taught me as a child growing up in Mississippi to focus on the many things we all have in common, not our few differences. And what we all deserve to have in common is the right to be treated equally."

Roberts said she agreed to be on the cover "last year well before recent events." She's much beloved on the Gulf Coast for her advocacy of the region after the devastation of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. The 55-year-old moved to Mississippi in 1969 when her father was assigned to Biloxi's Keesler Air Force Base.

Unlike some, Roberts didn't call for tourists to boycott Mississippi. It's unclear whether she's contacted state government to express her displeasure or asked the association to remove her from the guide. A spokeswoman for ABC declined further comment.

Mississippi's law, effective July 1, would allow a church group to decline services including housing or adoption to gay couples. Private businesses could refuse marriage-related services such as room rentals, cakes, photography or flowers. Any employer or school could refuse to allow a transgender person to use the bathroom of their choice. Among government employees, clerks could refuse to issue marriage licenses and judges could refuse to marry gay couples. In both cases, governments are supposed to ensure licenses and marriages are "not impeded or delayed."

No state or local laws to compel services to gay people had been passed in Mississippi. The measure prohibits local communities from passing their own ordinances.

Rochelle Hicks, executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association, said earlier Friday that some individual tourists have been calling member hotels and casinos to cancel visits. She couldn't be reached later after Roberts released her statement.

"We hope they will recognize the law doesn't represent the views of all in our state," Hicks said.

Some supporters have pushed back against criticism. The Tupelo-based American Family Association on Friday said opposition had been spearheaded by "gay activists and state business organizations who are hostile to Christianity."

"By voting 'yes' to the 'Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,' our governor and lawmakers heard the voices of their constituents and cast their vote for our residents' freedom of religious conscience rather than for vocal and wealthy gay activists," association President Tim Wildmon said in a statement.

Online: House Bill 1523: http://bit.ly/1qo4guX
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