October 30, 2017 at 9:56 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Judge opens new path to challenge Mississippi anti-LGBT law
Bilal Ahmed

A federal judge has opened a new path to challenge a Mississippi anti-LGBT law.

In the aftermath of a higher court overturning his decision, a federal judge who ruled against a Mississippi “religious freedom” law enabling sweeping anti-LGBT law has opened up to a new path for a legal challenge to the statute.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, an Obama appointee, issued the order Friday in the case against Mississippi’s HB 1523 filed by the Campaign for Southern Equality and two same-sex couples in the state.

The order lifts a stay in the case, allowing up to five written interrogatories to identify which of the 82 clerk’s offices in Mississippi have sought to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples under the law and the process by which they intend to handle those recusals.

Additionally, the order grants the state until Nov. 13, or a time until the parties may agree, to respond or object to the written interrogatories.

If a Mississippi clerk was found to have recused themselves from issuing marriage licenses or if any such recusal impaired the ability of a same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license, that could form the basis for a new challenge to HB 1523.

The law, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant last year, allows state government employees who facilitate marriages the option to opt out of issuing licenses to same-sex couples, but the person must issue prior written notice to the state government and a clerk’s office must not delay the issuance of licenses.

But the law isn’t limited to clerks. It prohibits the state from taking action against religious organizations that decline employment, housing or services to same-sex couples; families who’ve adopted a foster child and wish to act in opposition to same-sex marriage and individuals who offer wedding services and decline to facilitate a same-sex wedding.

Additionally, the law allows individuals working in medical services to decline a transgender person’s request for gender reassignment surgery.

Reeves last year issued a preliminary injunction enjoining enforcement of the “religious freedom” law on the basis that it violated the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from aligning itself with a particular religion. In this case, Reeves determined HB 1523 endorsed one particular religious view on LGBT people, thus was unconstitutional.

But a three-judge panel U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals overturned that decision on the basis that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenges the lawsuit. Despite a request from plaintiffs for a “en banc” rehearing before the full court, the Fifth Circuit refused to hear the case. As a result, the law took effect earlier this month.

The Campaign for Southern Equality lawsuit was consolidated with a separate lawsuit filed by LGBT people, a dozen Mississippi ministers and the Joshua Metropolitan Community Church. Lambda Legal, which is representing plaintiffs in that lawsuit, already sought relief after the Fifth Circuit ruling rejecting their challenge by filing a petition of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has yet to act on the petition.

UPDATE: The Campaign for Southern Equality — represented by New York lesbian attorney Robbie Kaplan — filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court on Monday urging justices to review the case.

“No one in this country should have to live their day-to-day life under circumstances in which their own government has officially designated them to be ‘outsiders’ for purposes of state law. Laws like HB 1523 that establish state-sanctioned religious beliefs are exactly what the First Amendment was designed to prohibit,” Kaplan said in a statement. “The founders in their wisdom intended for the protections of the Bill of Rights to have real meaning.

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

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