Federal Court Strikes Down Miss. ‘Religious Freedom’ Legislation

A Mississippi law that purported to defend “religious freedom” by allowing state officials and others to discriminate against LGBT residents was struck down in June by a federal court.

U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves declared that “The Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” is unconstitutional and enjoined the state from enforcing it the day before it was to go into effect.

Reeves’ 60-page ruling in Barber v. Bryant is a powerful rebuke of religion-based discrimination, firmly anchored in the Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church and state. Reeves quickly dismissed the claims of those who say the separation concept is not found in the Constitution, citing a 1952 U.S. 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 the Mississippi law, 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, “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.”

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 also extended special protections to anyone who opposes marriage for same-sex couples, believes that sex should take place only within the context of marriage or opposes transgender rights. In practice, the bill would have granted an affirmative right to discriminate to those in Mississippi who had a religious objection to marriage for same-sex couples, cohabitation, single parenting and so on.

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

State officials plan to appeal the ruling and have enlisted Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group founded by TV and radio preachers, to assist.

After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality last year, Americans United predicted that a wave of bills would crop up in states with the intention of undermining the rights of LGBT individuals by purporting to protect “religious freedom.” Americans United’s Protect Thy Neighbor campaign monitors bills like this across the country.