July 1, 2016 at 9:17 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Judge blocks enforcement of Mississippi ‘religious freedom’ law
same-sex marriage, gay news, Washington Blade

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against Mississippi’s religious freedom law.

A federal judge blocked early Friday the enforcement of a recently enacted “religious freedom” law in Mississippi that was seen to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination and set to take effect on the same day.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, an Obama appointee, issued a preliminary injunction against the law in a 60-page decision that determines the statute violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from aligning itself with a particular religion.

“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,” Reeves writes. “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.”

Reeves determines HB 1523 violates the Establishment Clause in at least two ways: First, by establishing an official preference for certain religious beliefs over others; and second, by because its broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens.

“On its face, HB 1523 constitutes an official preference for certain religious tenets,” Reeves writes. “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 § 2 become second-class Christians. Their exclusion from HB 1523 sends a message ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members.'”

Signed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant in April, House Bill 1523 is seen to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.” The law permits clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, provided someone else in their office can offer the service, and allows business and individuals to deny services to same-sex couples as well as transition-related care to transgender people. HB 1523 was set to go into effect Friday.

Reeves issues the preliminary injunction as a result of two separate lawsuits. One was filed by Roberta Kaplan, the lesbian New York-based attorney who successfully argued against the Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Supreme Court. The other was filed by Rob McDuff of the Jackson-based law firm McDuff & Byrd in Jackson and the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Kaplan filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Campaign for Southern Equality. The other lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Joshua Generation Metropolitan Community Church and 13 Mississippi ministers affected by HB 1523.

Kaplan after the ruling invoked in a statement Thomas Jefferson, whom she said more than 200 years ago wrote “one of the founding principles of our nation is that civil rights should have no dependence on anyone’s religious opinions.”

“In striking down HB 1523, the Court enforced the fundamental constitutional principle that the government cannot establish any religion,” Kaplan added. “As a result, Mississippi will no longer be permitted to favor some ‘religious beliefs’ over others, and the civil rights of LGBT Mississippians will not be subordinated to the religious beliefs of only certain religious groups.”

Reeves is the same judge who in 2014 ruled against the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The judge placed a hold on his decision until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed it last year by ruling in favor of marriage equality nationwide.

The judge issued the ruling against Mississippi’s “religious freedom” law after held he hearings last week in with expert testimony. Among those who testified were Douglas NeJaime, faculty director of the Williams Institute, University of California; Joce Pritchett, a lesbian Jackson resident who is raising children with her same-sex spouse; and Kathryn Garner, the executive director of the AIDS Services Coalition of Hattiesburg.

According to 2016 data published by The Williams Institute, the state is also home to 3,500 same-sex couples and 29 percent of them are raising children, making Mississippi the state with the highest percentage same-sex couples raising children. Mississippi is also home to 60,000 LGBT adults and an estimated 11,400 transgender youth and adults.

On Monday, Reeves issued another order as a result of a separate, but related, lawsuit seeking to re-open to the marriage-equality case in Mississippi to challenge the law. The limited order agrees to re-open the case and asserts authority to issue an injunction that would bind clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and hold them in contempt of court if they refuse to do under HB 1523.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said his attorneys “will evaluate this decision” to determine whether to appeal, but added he personally opposes HB 1523.

“I can’t pick my clients, but I can speak for myself as a named defendant in this lawsuit,” Hood said. “The fact is that the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB1523 protected religious freedoms. Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies. No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason. I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man.”

Hood added he intends to appeal the decision earlier in the week seeking to extend the marriage-equality injunction to clerks on the basis they “were never parties to the case.”

“I believe in the free exercise of religion and there will be a case in the future in which the U.S. Supreme Court will better define our religious rights,” Hood concluded. “This case, however, is not that vehicle.”

The Blade has placed a request to comment on the ruling in with Bryant’s office. Should either Bryant or Hood decide to appeal the decision, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would hold jurisdiction for the review.

Rev. Susan Hrostowski, a plaintiff in the case and an Episcopal priest who resides in Hattiesburg, Miss., said in a statement she’s “grateful that the court has blocked this divisive law.”

“As a member of the LGBT community and as minister of the Gospel, I am thankful that justice prevailed,” Hrostowski said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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