Religious "freedom to discriminate" law in Mississippi:
Part 3 of three parts
2016: Bill HB 1523.
unconstitutional by a Federal court
just hours before it was to
effect. Reactions. Appeal likely.
2016-JUN-30: Federal court issues a preliminary injunction to prevent HB 1523 from becoming effective on JUL-01:
U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a preliminary injunction that blocked HB 1523 only a few hours before it was scheduled to take effect. He wrote:
"The State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others."
" [Showing such favor tells] nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. ... the Equal Protection Clause [of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution] is violated by HB 1523’s authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons."
The plaintiffs’ motions are granted and HB 1523 is preliminarily enjoined." 1
He also wrote, referring to the Civil War:
"Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It must be enjoined." 1
The office of Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R) issued a statement, saying:
"Like I said when I signed House Bill 1523, the law simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law. I am disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality. I look forward to an aggressive appeal." 1
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, (who is no relation to Judge Reeves) had anticipated an appeal. He issued a statement, saying:
"If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice their religion, then all Mississippians are denied their 1st Amendment rights. I hope the state’s attorneys will quickly appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of all Mississippians."
Lt. Gov. Reeves apparently believes that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals not only religious freedom of belief, but the their freedom to take action based on religious beliefs even if it discriminates against, denigrates, or hurts others.
Joseph R. Murray II, a gay lawyer who once worked for the conservative religious group, the American Family Association, criticized Republican legislators in the state for being "obsessed" with homosexuality. Apparently referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2015-JUN that legalized same-sex marriage, he wrote that the politics in Mississippi's legislature:
"... are just so blatant. This bill, it’s the death throes of the religious right that doesn’t know what to do with itself now that it’s lost, and lost miserably. They took all those $5 and $10 donations from little old ladies, and what have they got to show for it?" 1
Lawyer Roberta Kaplan expressed elation at the injunction. She said:
"When you come back to the founding principles of this country, one of the most important ones is the idea that unlike in Europe and unlike, frankly, some of the early colonists who had really violent debates about matters of Christian beliefs, that the right thing for the government to do and the way to have a more perfect union is for the government to stay out of those debates.
In passing this law, the Mississippi government sought to take sides in matters religious people have very strong disagreements about today on both sides of this issue. And if there's anything that violates the establishment clause, it's doing that." 2
Rob McDuff, a local attorney who also argued against HB 1523 in District Court released a statement on behalf of himself and the plaintiffs that he represented. He said:
"The federal court's decision recognizes that religious freedom can be preserved along with equal rights for all people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Because HB 1523 was discriminatory, Judge Reeves properly held that it is unconstitutional. It is now time for all of us, as Mississippian to move beyond division and come together in the ongoing pursuit of a society that respects the rights of everyone."
That would not be a simple task for many citizens of Mississippi. Over a decade ago, when plebiscites were held in many states to measure public opinion on same-sex marriage, the voters in Mississippi had the highest level of opposition to marriage equality in the nation: 86% opposed to same-sex marriage; 14% in favor. 3 There has been a gradual acceptance of marriage equality. However, there is a strong majority in opposition. A New York Times/CBS News/You Gov poll in late 2014-SEP found that 29% of adults support while 56% oppose gay marriage; 15% having no opinion. 4
2016-JUL-01: Victory demonstration held at the State Capitol:
A few hours after the temporary injunction was announced, a demonstration was held by the NAACP, ACLU, and other groups on the steps of the Capitol building. They were celebrating the court's ruling. Many held signs that displayed the motto that has become a popular saying across the U.S. for these "religious freedom to discriminate" laws: "NO HATE IN MY STATE."
Rabbi Jeremy Simons was one of the speakers. He is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, which has worked for decades in support of equality for the LGBT community. He referred to passages in the Bible which supporters of the bill had selectively quoted in favor of the 1523. He said:
"If you read those very same pages of the Bible, you will read the commandment: ... 'You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.' ... You will not read that once, you will not read that twice, you will read that 36 times in the Bible. That is more than any other commandment by far."
A stranger is not simply someone who doesn't live in your community. A stranger in the biblical sense is anybody who is a minority, anybody who is vulnerable. Anybody who could be the victim of oppression, you shall not oppress. ... This [bill] is not about religion. This is about bigotry." 2
After the rally, Rob Hill, Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign of Mississippi told the Jackson Free Press that the fight is not over. He said:
"We're still in legal limbo at this point until the federal courts decide. The best way to do that is to call the legislators back and introduce a full repeal of HB 1523. It's the only way we'll feel completely safe. ... [HB 1523] puts an unnecessary target on LGBTQ people's backs in our state. ... [The Legislature needs] ... to come back to this House, and they need to fix it and repeal this bill."
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood [D] released a statement on JUL-01 indicating that his office might not continue to defend HB 1523. He said:
"The fact is that the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB 1523 protected religious freedoms. Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies. No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason. I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man."
The belief that the government will prosecute clergy if they refuse to marry a couple for any reason -- including their gender -- is widespread among religious conservatives in Mississippi and elsewhere. However, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state. Thus, the government cannot interfere with decisions by clergy about whom they will marry. Clergy for centuries have been refusing to marry couples because of their race, age, perceived lack of maturity, religious faith or lack of it, lack of membership in the clergy person's church, and many other grounds. None has ever been charged.
Philip Gunn, (R) the Speaker of the Mississippi House, issued a statement stating his disappointment at the Judge's decision. He said:
"We felt like this was a good bill, protecting religious beliefs and the rights of the LGBT community."
A few days later, Judge Reeves followed up his temporary injunction with a permanent one.
The state is expected to launch an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and, later, perhaps even to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an attempt to reinstate HB 1523.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "U.S. district judge strikes down Mississippi’s ‘religious freedom’ law," The Washington Post, 2016-JUL-01, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
- "Simons Says: HB 1523 ‘Is About Bigotry’," Jackson Free Press, 2016-JUL-06, at:
- "Mississippi Amendment 1," Wikipedia, as on 2015-DEC-01, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
- "Same-sex marriage in Mississippi," Wikipedia, as on 2016-MAY-06, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
How you may have arrived here:
Copyright © 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
First posted: 2016-JUL-07
Latest update: 2016-JUL-07
Author: B.A. Robinson