Discrimination Defeated!: A Miss. Law That Used ‘Religious Freedom’ To Undermine Rights Is Struck Down

A Mississippi law that purported to defend “religious freedom” by allowing state officials and others to discriminate against LGBT residents was scheduled to go into effect today. That won’t be happening, thanks to a federal court ruling.

Americans United fights every day to protect religious freedom. This fundamental American value is what guarantees us the freedom to worship – or not – as we see fit. What it does not do, though, is grant anyone a right to harm others.

Mississippi’s law, H.B. 1523, clearly violates this principle, and last night U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves unambiguously said so. He declared the law, which carried the Orwellian label of “The Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” unconstitutional and enjoined the state from enforcing it.

The main purpose of the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in April, was to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding marriage equality. But the legislation went beyond that. It extended special protections to anyone who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, believed that sex should take place only within the context of marriage or opposed transgender rights.

In practice, the bill would have granted an affirmative right to discriminate to anyone in Mississippi who had a religious objection to marriage for same-sex couples, cohabitation, single parenting and so on.

Furthermore, the law covered both public and private actions. It would have allowed government officials and the owners of for-profit business to deny services to LGBT couples and their families, single mothers and unmarried couples who lived together.

Reeves’ 60-page ruling in Barber v. Bryant is a powerful rebuke to this kind of discrimination, firmly anchored in the Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church and state.

Mississippi's anti-LGBT "religious freedom" law is unconstitutional!

A large section of the opinion deals with church-state separation and its history in America. Reeves quickly dismisses the claims of those who say the separation concept is not found in the Constitution, citing a 1952 Supreme Court case.

“Another popular misconception holds that the [First Amendment] is in error since the Constitution does not contain the phrase ‘separation of Church and State,’ he wrote. “Adherents of this belief have read the text correctly but missed its meaning. ‘There cannot be the slightest doubt that the First Amendment reflects the philosophy that Church and State should be separated.’ (Zorach v. Clauson)”

Reeves asserted that H.B. 1523 is unconstitutional in part because it favors the adherents of certain religious beliefs over others.

“On its face, HB 1523 constitutes an official preference for certain religious tenets,” he wrote. “If three specific beliefs are ‘protected by this act,’ it follows that every other religious belief a citizen holds is not protected by the act. Christian Mississippians with religious beliefs contrary to [the law] become second-class Christians….HB 1523 favors Southern Baptist over Unitarian doctrine, Catholic over Episcopalian doctrine, and Orthodox Judaism over Reform Judaism doctrine, to list just a few examples.”

The judge also noted that the legislation fails because it “gives persons with [certain] beliefs an absolute right to refuse service to LGBT citizens without regard for the impact on their employer, coworkers, or those being denied service.”

He concluded with this powerful statement: “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.”

After the Supreme Court ruled in favor marriage equality last year, Americans United predicted that a wave of bills would crop up in states designed to undermine the rights of LGBT individuals by purporting to protect “religious freedom.” Our Protect Thy Neighbor campaign monitors bills like this across the country. We fight against these harmful bills so that our neighbors don’t face discrimination. We also work in court to protect people from being forced to live under the rules of someone else’s religion.

But, we all know legislatures still pass and governors still sign bad bills. Courts provide a second-line of defense in those instances. This case, brought by LGBT rights advocates on behalf of clergy and residents of Mississippi, resulted in a stunning victory for the people of Mississippi against discrimination and for real religious freedom.