A federal judge recently blocked a controversial law in Mississippi that would have otherwise gone into effect last month, allowing government employees and local businesses to deny services to LGBT individuals on religious grounds. Mississippi’s ‘Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act’ was intended to protect those who use their religious convictions to object to contemporary issues such as changing gender, same-sex marriage and extramarital sex. Clearly, the measure would have made it legal for religious conservatives to openly discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
Staying the legislation, United States District Court Judge Carlton Reeves released a 60-page opinion in which he described the law—also known as House Bill 1523—as ‘state-sanctioned discrimination’.
“There are almost endless explanations for how HB 1523 condones discrimination against the LGBT community, but in its simplest terms it denies LGBT citizens equal protection under the law,” he wrote.
Citing several reasons for his stay, Reeves explained how the law would create an entire system to deny rights to LGBT individuals, thereby violating the equal protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. He elucidated how HB 1523 gave an official preference to certain religious beliefs over others, thereby violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as well.
“The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others. That violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws,” he added.
The plaintiffs—who sued Mississippi over HB 1523—constitutes a broad cross section of LGBT advocates, religious officials and local residents as well; all of whom feel that the new law would inevitably violate their constitutional rights.
Ruling in their favor, Reeves wrote, “The bill creates a statewide two-tiered system that elevates heterosexual citizens and demeans LGBT citizens.”
Critics believe the legislation is so broad that it would apply to anyone outside a heterosexual marriage, affecting adoptions, foster care, business practices, issuing of marriage licenses and even school bathroom policies.
Reeves ordered a preliminary injunction on June 30 but state attorneys said they would appeal his decision.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who had signed HB 1523 into law in April, said he was disappointed with Reeves’ ruling.
“House Bill 1523 simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law,” Bryant said. “I am disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality. I look forward to an aggressive appeal.”
In a nutshell, HB 1523 would have protected private businesses as well as certain government employees from disciplinary or legal action if they denied services to customers, citing their ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ as a reason.
The law, also known as ‘Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act’, was passed directly after the United States Supreme Court stated in its landmark 2015 ruling that it is constitutional for all Americans, irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation, to marry any person they love. HB 1523 was among many other similar measures enacted across the country the following year. Over a dozen states had passed or at least considered ‘religious liberty’ laws in response to the Supreme Court’s decision favoring same-sex marriage nationwide.
Under HB 1523, religious organizations would have been allowed to refuse LGBT individuals’ marriage licenses, adoption and foster care services, employment as well as staying provisions. Additionally, medical professionals would have been allowed to opt out of counseling and treatment related to gender identity transitioning or sex reassignment surgeries. Apart from enabling vital-records, clerks and their deputies to refuse marriage licenses to LGBT individuals because of their moral conviction or sincerely held religious beliefs, the law would also allow magistrates, judges, justices of the peace and their deputies to decline performing them.
Supporters of the bill, including Bryant, defended it as the only way to prevent discrimination against Christians who have conservative beliefs regarding marriage and sex. However, Reeves promptly struck down that notion, writing HB 1523 grants ‘special rights’ to a certain section, which disapproves the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender as well as unmarried people.
“HB 1523 does not advance the interest of the State as it says it does. Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise, it creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is not rationally related to a legitimate end,” he concluded.
The debate surrounding HB 1523 continues to intensify as a Christian nonprofit was recently found to have drafted much of the controversial language used in the legislation while asking Bryant to institute the protections via an executive order last year. According to emails that were just obtained by Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who is now suing Mississippi’s republican governor, Alliance Defending Freedom is also believed to have helped write Bryant’s signing speech and offered public relations advice to him.
The emails were filed in court last month by opponents of HB 1523, who persuaded Reeves to block the law less than an hour before it came into effect on July 1. The plaintiffs stressed that HB 1523 improperly and unconstitutionally reflects sectarian Christian values of Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious groups.
Bryant refused to answer questions from Atheist Republic, issuing only a statement for all media.
“We appreciate the Alliance Defending Freedom working with the Legislature to draft House Bill 1523,” Bryant said. “It is perfectly normal for our office to work with individuals and organizations who have had a role in requesting and/or opposing legislation during the bill review process to gather additional information.”
Currently, John Davis, Executive Director of Department of Human Services, is aligned with Bryant to appeal Reeves’ ruling. While they have asked the judge to let the law take effect in the meantime, its opponents have demanded that the preliminary injunction continues until an appeal offers enough reason for it to be lifted.
“If allowed to go into effect, HB 1523 will cause sweeping harm to some of the most vulnerable members of society,” wrote Kaplan.
According to the emails obtained by Kaplan, Austin Nimocks (senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom) proposed an executive order to Drew Snyder (policy director and legal counsel to Bryant) a mere 10 days before the Supreme Court finally legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
“The main document is a model executive order that would prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views about or actions concerning marriage,” Nimocks wrote in the mail, which also carried a sample news release.
Much of the language of Nimocks’ proposal happens to match HB 1523, including a section that strives to protect actions stemming from three primary beliefs; that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman, sex can take place only in such a marriage and an individual’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be changed thereafter.
Kaplan also filed correspondence from Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which evidently assisted in organizing churches and other bodies that support HB 1523 ahead of the 2016 legislative session. The Center not only issued a survey showing immense support for HB 152, but also suggested talking points that Bryant cited along with other supporters.
“We work with national organizations on a regular basis, and we knew there was a model bill that had been developed,” said Forest Thigpen, president of the Center, adding that it is common for his group to be a ‘resource for legislators’.
Outside groups are known to draft laws in Mississippi. Researchers at University of Chicago recently found that legislators in Mississippi introduced more model bills from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council as compared to lawmakers in any other state across the country. These legislators were also seen introducing the third-highest number of bills from the more liberal State Innovation Exchange.
Photo Credits: The Washington Post