Mississippi Architect: Why Discrimination is Bad for Business

Seabold Architectural Studio in Jackson, Mississippi has a simple motto – “We believe the best design solutions are born out of a collaborative process.” Jeff Seabold, who founded the small 3-5 employee firm in early 2009, lives out this commitment each day, endeavoring to work with clients to achieve their dreams, no matter who they are.

“Among our clients, I’ve got families of every possible configuration right now – and I have in the past, too. I’ve designed houses for two men, two women, a man and a woman, a single woman, a single man,” Jeff explained. “Sure, I could walk in with the Frank Lloyd Wright approach – ‘This is the house I’m designing, and you’re lucky enough to live in it.’ But I don’t walk into any project with that level of ego. We design a house for anyone based on what they need. Every family has a personal dynamic that’s different.”

Though Jeff thinks it’s important to draw upon his expertise if a client is making a bad decision about a building project, he explained that “in no way, shape, or form would I ever consider (nor do I think anyone should consider) telling people they’re living a certain way or the wrong way. That’s just silly to me. At the end of the day we’re all people. We’re all individuals.”

That’s part of why he was shocked and disgusted to see an egregious anti-LGBTQ law take effect in Mississippi in October 2017. The law, HB1523, specifically allows some residents with anti-LGBTQ beliefs to refuse service to married same-sex couples, people who have sex outside of marriage, and transgender people.

Under this unprecedented religious refusal law, Mississippi state employees could refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, public school counselors could turn away LGBTQ or questioning youth in crisis, and health care providers could deny transgender people access to healthcare at any time, among just a few examples of potential discrimination.

The law took effect on October 10, 2017 after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ dismissed a lower federal court ruling that struck down the law as unconstitutional.

Jeff sprung into action to rail against HB1523. “When I was asked by a lesbian friend to speak out against the law, I didn’t hesitate,” Jeff said. “I made the commitment.” The result was a frank and heartfelt article in The Huffington Post with a headline that said it all: “I’m A Straight Business Owner In Mississippi And I’m Horrified By My State’s New Anti-LGBTQ Law.”

Jeff cares a lot about his home state and the community of Jackson, Mississippi. “People make eye contact here – they smile, they wave. After taking a friend on the tour of the city, they asked if I knew everyone we passed by because everyone was so friendly.” Jeff laughed, remembering, “I told them I only knew about half.”

Despite the friendly attitude of his city and his love for his state, Jeff is concerned about the effect recent news reports are having on Mississippi’s national reputation.

“One of hardest things is combatting the negative image of Mississippi,” he said. “We hear horrible things on a regular basis. People ask, ‘How do you still live there?’ You kind of feel like you’re on an island sometimes, but there are all kinds of people everywhere.”

Jeff pointed out that the state’s population is actually contracting, and he mentioned many friends and one employee who have relocated to other states, in part due to the hostile environment fostered by HB1523. “I’m a divorced single dad of a young son, so I can’t leave the state,” he said. So while committed to being here, he works hard to make it a better place for everyone in both his professional and volunteering pursuits.

Mississippi is home to 60,000 LGBT adults and an estimated 11,400 transgender youth and adults, according to 2016 data published by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The state is also home to 3,500 same-sex couples, 29 percent of whom are raising children—the highest rate in the nation. Legal advocates – including Lambda Legal and the Campaign for Southern Equality – are challenging the law in court, with one case, Barber v. Bryant, filed for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issues of so-called religious exemptions and nondiscrimination will also face the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, scheduled for oral argument on December 5.

In his Huffington Post byline, Jeff describes himself as “one architect on a small mission to help try and save the world.” He pointed out that humans spend 85% of our lives in buildings, and explained that he views issues like the environment, sustainability, and human rights as inextricable from the field of architecture. These values play out in his business practice, and he has received numerous awards and recognition for work in the community.

“I can’t change everything, but at the end of the day I’ve got principles,” asserts Jeff. “That’s not the world I want to live in or for my son to grow up in… Intolerance isn’t born; it’s taught.

“If you’re one of those people who wants to discriminate based on whatever you can – to actually look someone in the idea and do it,” he said. “That’s not anything I learned in Sunday school.”

Editors’ Note: Jeff Seabold is one of the featured voices in an amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The brief was filed on behalf of the Main Street Alliance, the American Independent Business Alliance, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Freedom for All Americans was proud to support this effort and contribute coordination and outreach to the brief. Read more about the brief here.

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