Why the case against Mississippi's religious objections law was different
In his ruling against a Mississippi state law Thursday evening, a judge further defines the distinction between religious freedom and separation of church and state.
On Friday, a federal judge in Mississippi struck down a state law that would have permitted LGBT discrimination on religious grounds, one hour before it was set to go into effect.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523, or the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, in April in response to the United States Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.
Since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling, numerous states have passed legislation designed to solidify protections for conservatives who object to the law on religious grounds. These laws have been met with staunch opposition from civil rights advocates who say they violate the constitutional rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. This case, however, approached the issue from a different angle.
US District Judge Carlton Reeves’ ruling against HB 1523, which would have permitted businesses and government employees from denying services to same-sex couples on religious grounds, is especially noteworthy because it reiterates a clear distinction between religious freedoms and religion-based laws.
“The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” Judge Reeves wrote in the 60-page ruling. The law “does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”
HB 1523, supported by fellow conservative Republicans and Christian groups such as the Family Research Council, would have upheld three beliefs: marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, sexual relations can only occur within this marriage, and that a person’s gender is decided at birth and can’t be changed.
Enshrining these beliefs in law would have granted religious organizations the right to lawfully deny gay or lesbian couples marriage licenses, jobs, counseling, foster care services, or adoption. Transgender individuals would have been subject to bathroom restrictions and dress codes as well as lawfully denied medical treatment related to gender transitioning.
“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,” added Judge Reeves. “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.”
Supporters of HB 1523 say the law simply protects Mississippians who want to exercise their religious freedom.
“If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice religion, then all Mississippians are denied their 1st Amendment rights,” Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is of no relation to the judge, said in a statement. “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.”
However, Mississippi already has a traditional religious freedom act to protect individuals who feel like their beliefs are being hindered by law. Thus employees are still permitted to refuse service to LGBT customers on religious grounds.
But opponents of the law, such as Judge Reeves, say there is a difference between protecting religion and imposing religion.
“In physics, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. In politics, every action has its predictable overreaction,” writes Judge Reeves. “And now Obergefell has led to HB 1523. The next chapter of this back-and-forth has begun.”