Mississippi Continues to Fight for Religious Freedom

July 22, 2016

After Judge Carlton Reeves’ stubborn decision preventing his state’s religious freedom law from taking effect several weeks ago, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant notified the court he would be swiftly appealing the ruling. The district court’s ruling had prevented H.B. 1523 from being applied to the people of Mississippi, meaning that clerks in state offices could now be forced to issue marriage licenses to those seeking same-sex unions, despite deep religious convictions that the clerks may have against aiding in a union that consists of two people of the same sex.

House Bill 1523 is a state law signed by Governor Bryant that allows a subset of business entities and government employees to opt out of being forced to violate their beliefs by participating in same-sex marriages, while mandating that the authorities ensure the couple still receive their services or benefits from some other government actor. The law seeks to protect religious organizations that have moral opposition to the practice of aiding in a process that promotes a lifestyle that goes against their religious core values. H.B. 1523 seeks to protect their core beliefs: That marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sex should only take place in such a marriage, and that a person’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered. It allows state clerks to exercise their religious freedom by not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and protects citizens of faith who are merchants by ensuring that they can still exercise their religious freedom. With these provisions, this law is a continuation of Mississippi’s long standing history of protecting religious freedom.

In the past, the state of Mississippi has exempted people who oppose all war for religious reasons from having to enter the draft. Mississippi has also exempted pro-life health care workers from performing some duties that are associated with terminating pregnancies. In his court filing opposing the renegade district court decision, Governor Bryant noted “[i]t is perfectly acceptable for the government to choose the conscientious scruples that it will protect and accommodate, while withholding those protections and accommodations from other deeply held beliefs.” Moreover, H.B. 1523 is not a drastic change in state law, he observes, because Mississippi lacks sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. Thus, even without H.B. 1523, Mississippians in theory could suffer all sorts of adverse action because of their sexual orientation. Yet the fact that the opponents of H.B. 1523 can’t point to a record of this occurring shows they are hyping up supposed problems which do not exist.

Thankfully, Governor Bryant strongly disagreed with the outcome-based decision of Judge Reeves. He rightly pointed out that H.B. 1523’s challengers will not be affected if the law takes effect during the appeal period, as they have shown no real, concrete injury to themselves. Thus, his request that H.B. 1523 be applied to the people of Mississippi while its appeal is ongoing is quite sensible.