In an ongoing battle over what ultimately comes down to religious rights, a federal appeals court ruled that Mississippi government employees and merchants can deny services to LGBT customers based on religious convictions.
Mississippi House Bill 1523 has been a controversial law tied up in courts for over a year. It was originally signed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant, as a response to the 2015 legalization of gay marriage nationwide. The law was designed as proactive measure to protect Mississippians against sticky religious rights scenarios. Common examples might be a Christian wedding planner who objects to doing gay weddings, or perhaps a printer that is hired to print propaganda relaying LGBT supportive messages, when they are strongly opposed. If they are by law, required to do so, then the strongly believing of those would rather exit the industry, than be forced to regularly violate their moral principles.
The more cynical of the religious rights groups question the motives of a customer who would hire a photographer to capture their happy day of marital bliss, when they know that the human on the other side of the lens is gagging from moral nausea. Why would you do that in the first place, other than to weed out or silence such objectors? The underlying thought behind the law, is aimed at protecting against just that. Mississippi’s HB 1523 is considered the broadest religious objection protection in the country.
“I am pleased the Fifth Circuit has ruled to dismiss the case and allow House Bill 1523 to become law. As I have said all along, the legislation is not meant to discriminate against anyone, but simply prevents government interference with the constitutional right to exercise sincerely held religious beliefs,” Bryant said in a statement.
Called the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, the bill aims “to provide certain protections regarding a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction persons, religious associations and private organizations.”
The law presides on three basic premises: Marriage is between one man and one woman. Sex is to be reserved for marriage, and gender is biologically determined and cannot be changed.
The provisions of the law allow a government clerk not to have to issue marriage license to same sex couples, if they religiously object. It would also allow retailers and vendors, such as wedding planners and printers, to refuse service to LGBT customers. Other potential uses of the law include school bathroom use, and private adoption agencies that receive government grants.
The controversial law has had its challenges. It was supposed to take effect last summer, but U.S District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled it unconstitutional. In July 2016, 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. And the Equal Protection Clause is violated by HB 1523’s authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”
In a 60 page memo, Judge Reeves wrote a scathing rebuke on the bill, stating, “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Reeves also called the bill Mississippi’s attempt to “put LGBT citizens back their place.”
However, the ruling was challenged by a religious rights group called the Alliance Defending Freedom, that helped write the law in the first place. Kevin Theriot, one of the attorneys driving the case, said that the bill was about protecting Mississippians’ rights to religious freedom.
“The sole purpose of this law is to ensure that Mississippians don’t live in fear of losing their careers or their businesses simply for affirming marriage as a husband-wife union,” Theriot said. “Those who filed suit have not and will not be harmed but want to restrict freedom and impose their beliefs on others by ensuring dissenters are left open to the government discrimination that has already occurred in states without protective laws like this one.”
On Thursday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Reeves’ ruling, in a lukewarm opinion. The three member judge panel did not address the constitutional issues of the law. They wrote that the plaintiffs, the LGBT rights groups in this case, failed to show how they would be harmed by the passage of the law. Therefore, “the federal courts must withhold judgment unless and until that plaintiff comes forward.”
The ruling is not final, as the plaintiffs do have time to make an appeal, which they most certainly will do. The LGBT rights groups in this case plan to go all the way to Supreme Court with the case if they have to.
It’s a small victory, and it may be short-lived. But, for now, Mississippi’s professional citizens are allowed to keep their careers, while practicing their religion as they deem appropriate.