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Religious freedom or discrimination? ACLU, Mississippi battle over law

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi filed suit against the state on behalf of an engaged gay couple on Monday, as the nationwide religious liberty debate continues.

Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle via AP
The Lafayette-Oxford-University Pride Parade grand marshall rolls through the Square in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday. On Monday the Mississippi ACLU filed suit against the state for a law it says legalizes discrimination against the LGBT community.

Mississippi’s American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the state on behalf of a gay couple on Monday, saying that a law that enables workers to deny services to people based on their religious objections to same-sex marriage is discriminatory. 

Mississippi is just the latest legal battleground where religious conservatives are trying to foment religious freedoms that they say have been eroded by the US Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage last year. Such debates have become commonplace as Americans struggle to balance notions of religious freedom and civil rights.

Mississippi's law, known as House Bill 1523, was filed by the Republican-majority legislature last summer after the Supreme Court decision. It was signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant earlier this month and is set to become law on July 1. Governor Bryant has described the law as a necessary means to protect Mississippians' "sincerely held religious liberties and moral convictions."

In the eyes of civil rights activists, it opens the door for legal discrimination.

"We've had a long history in Mississippi of bigotry and discrimination, and House Bill 1523 brings that back to life," Oliver Diaz, a former state Supreme Court justice who filed the lawsuit Monday in US District Court in Jackson, told reporters. 

Supporters say the law supports the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, while opponents say it denies basic constitutional rights.

Since the Supreme Court decision, states have passed more than 200 laws that LGBT advocates consider discriminatory, according to Time.

Furthermore, conservative states have overturned anti-LGBT discrimination ordinances by individual cities – Charlotte, N.C., for example. Other conservative-run states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Indiana also have blocked local attempts to pass such rules on behalf of LGBT residents.  

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory filed a lawsuit Monday morning, asking the federal courts to clarify federal law. The filing effectively buys him more time and challenges the Justice Department's move to rescind the so-called state "bathroom law."

The Mississippi law suit centers around the rights of Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, a couple from the eastern Mississippi city of Meridian. The two men have been engaged since 2014 and intend to marry but are concerned that they will be denied services if they do.

"Our grandparents experienced discrimination for being black, and my parents probably did as well," Mr. Alford said. "My parents were born in the '60s and grew up in the '70s and '80s, and so it's always been a part of our lives. We thought this movement was over, you know? We thought that we would be fine. We thought that we would be equal, and here we are today saying that we're not, and we want equality."

Spokesmen for the governor's office and the attorney general's office did not immediately respond to Associated Press's requests for comment about the lawsuit.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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