AU Supports Mississippians Challenging Discriminatory ‘Religious Freedom’ Law

Americans United on July 13 filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mississippi residents who are challenging the state’s discriminatory House Bill 1523, a misnamed “religious freedom” law.

HB 1523 allows religion to be used as a legal justification for discrimination against LGBTQ people, single mothers, divorcées and anyone who has had sex outside of marriage (and the families of these individuals). It would allow individuals, corporations, health-care providers and nonprofit organizations – including those that receive taxpayer funding – to cite religious beliefs as grounds to refuse people access to goods and services.

Several state residents and organizations filed lawsuits challenging the law shortly after Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed it in April 2016. A federal judge soon afterward ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but Bryant appealed that decision with the assistance of the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in late June didn’t directly uphold the law, but did rule that the plaintiffs in Barber v. Bryant had no right to sue because they had not yet been harmed by the provision, which hadn’t gone into effect.

AU’s brief argues that people are already being harmed by HB 1523. The mere existence of the law, AU says, demonstrates that some residents are considered second-class citizens in their state, unworthy of equal dignity, equal citizenship and equal protection of the laws.

The plaintiffs appealed, requesting an en banc hearing requiring all the 5th Circuit Court judges to review the panel’s decision.

In other cases involving the use of religion as an excuse to discriminate:

  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit filed over a North Carolina law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform marriages for same-sex couples. The court did not weigh in on the constitutionality of the law, but rather rejected the argument that the plaintiffs were sufficiently harmed to have legal “standing” – that is, the right to sue as state taxpayers who must pay to apply the law. 
  • A federal judge in Kentucky has ordered the state to pay nearly a quarter-million dollars in legal fees over Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

U.S. District Judge David Bunning ruled that the couples who sued Davis over her refusal to fulfill her responsibility as an elected officer of the state are entitled to recoup attorneys’ fees. Since Davis was acting in an official capacity and the state primarily regulates the issuance of marriage licenses, Bunning ruled the state must cover the fees, not Davis personally or Rowan County. Davis’ attorneys representing the Religious Right legal group Liberty Counsel said they would appeal Bunning’s ruling.