JACKSON Late last night, U.S. District Court for Southern Mississippi Judge Carlton Reeves stopped Mississippi's controversial HB 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Religious Discrimination Act, in its tracks.
In a 60-page opinion, Reeves discussed the discriminatory impact the bill would have on the LGBTQ community in the state with several examples, saying that the "title, text and history of HB 1523 indicate that the bill was the State's attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell," the case that made it legal for couples to have legally protected same-sex marriages. He also spoke to the negative impact the legislation would have on the economy of the state, and how it privileges the religious beliefs of some groups over others.
"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 wrote. "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."
Roberta Kaplan is a New York City-based attorney is representing the Campaign for Southern Equality in one of the cases against HB1523 in the state and who served as the lawyer in the landmark United States v. Windsor case that repealed Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages as legal. She told the Jackson Free Press today that she was "elated" at the injunction, but that she did not find it that big of a surprise.
"When you come back to the founding principles of this country, one of the most important ones is the idea that unlike in Europe and unlike, frankly, some of the early colonists who had really violent debates about matters of Christian beliefs, that the right thing for the government to do and the way to have a more perfect union is for the government to stay out of those debates," she said.
"In passing this law, the Mississippi government sought to take sides in matters religious people have very strong disagreements about today on both sides of this issue," Kaplan said. "And if there's anything that violates the establishment clause, it's doing that."
Local attorney Rob McDuff argued against HB 1523 in Barber v. Bryant in a joint hearing before Reeves last week on behalf of a number of religious and community leaders along with Kaplan and the Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant case. He and those plaintiffs released a statement today applauding the decision.
"The federal court’s decision recognizes that religious freedom can be preserved along with equal rights for all people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Because H.B. 1523 was discriminatory, Judge Reeves properly held that it is unconstitutional. It is now time for all of us, as Mississippians, to move beyond division and come together in the ongoing pursuit of a society that respects the rights of everyone," McDuff said in the statement.
“Our case presented the widest array of Mississippians to face harm if the statute had been allowed to go into effect,” said Beth Orlansky of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which participated in Barber v. Bryant. “Civic and business leaders properly condemned this statute, but it took the courage displayed by our clients to come forward and block this unconstitutional law.”
Predictably, the injunction upsets Gov. Phil Bryant, who said in a statement he looks forward to an "aggressive appeal" of the decision, the Associated Press reported. Kaplan, however, says though that that ball is in the state's court, she is "very comfortable" Reeves' decision will be affirmed on appeal.
Read the JFP's award-winning coverage of the tough fight for LGBT rights in Mississippi.
Matt Steffey, professor of constitutional law at Mississippi College, told the Jackson Free Press today that the defendants could appeal the injunction on the law to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If overturned there, an outcome he said would be unlikely, the case would then return to Reeves' courtroom.
Human Rights Campaign of Mississippi Executive Director Rob Hill emphasized, however, that though it is a huge victory, the sigh of relief is temporary. After a celebratory rally on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol today, he told the Jackson Free Press that the fight is not exactly over.
"We're still in legal limbo at this point until the federal courts decide," he said. "The best way to do that is to call the legislators back and introduce a full repeal of HB 1523. It's the only way we'll feel completely safe."
Hill says he would love it if the governor called a special session in order to repeal the law. "The governor called the legislators back to fix the mess they created with the budget," he said. "They've created a mess here."
"This puts an unnecessary target on LGBTQ people's backs in our state," he said. "They need to come back to this house, and they need to fix it and repeal this bill."
Rep. Greg Snowden, a Meridian Republican and the speaker pro tempore of the Mississippi House of Representatives, tweeted to the Jackson Free Press this morning that "[i]ssues are not settled" around HB 1523. "An appeals court (maybe SCOTUS) will have to sort it all out." He provided a link to the National Conference of State Legislatures' page on "Marriage Solemnization" laws around the country.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the only statewide elected Democrat and who is named as a defendant, released a statement this morning saying he is not sure his office would continue to defend HB 1523.
“I can't pick my clients, but I can speak for myself as a named defendant in this lawsuit," Hood wrote in the statement.
"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."
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, released a statement today saying that he was "disappointed" in the ruling. "We felt like this was a good bill, protecting religious beliefs and the rights of the LGBT community," he tweeted.
Additional reporting by Tim Summers Jr. and Donna Ladd. Read the JFP's award-winning coverage of House Bill 1523 and the fight for LGBT rights in Mississippi here.