"It feels like the state will never stop pursuing us," said Joce Pritchett as she testified under oath in a federal courtroom in Jackson recently. She was describing what it felt like to be a LGBT person living in Mississippi when HB 1523 passed this spring.
Joce explained the relief she experienced a year ago, when, for the first time, her family was recognized in her home state after the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. But with the passage of HB 1523—titled the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act"—those feelings dissolved, replaced by a familiar sense of being targeted. In the past year, the South has emerged as ground zero for anti-LGBT political backlash. During the 2016 state legislative season, anti-LGBT bills proliferated across the region as the religious right road-tested a two-pronged strategy: first, they used religious exemptions to justify discrimination against the LGBT community, and second, they targeted transgender people.
HB 1523 is so extreme that it enumerates three specific religious beliefs that will be protected above all others: 1. Marriage can only be between a man and a woman, 2. Sexual relations are properly confined to such a marriage, and 3. Sex is an innate characteristic that is assigned at birth and cannot change. The law allows public officials, doctors and others to invoke these specific beliefs as justification for refusing treatment and service to LGBT people.
Too often, LGBT southerners lack the political power to stop a discriminatory bill once it's proposed. This was certainly the case with HB 1523, which sailed through the Mississippi Legislature before Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law. But where the political process failed in Mississippi, federal courts offered remedy. Less than 30 minutes before HB 1523 was scheduled to go into effect, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves issued an order striking the law down: "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 majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens and were immunized from the consequences of their actions. LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were "put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres" to symbolize their second-class status."
But the fight isn't over. Gov. Bryant is now appealing Judge Reeves' ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is now represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which drafted HB 1523 and is widely regarded as the control center of a robustly funded movement that strives to enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination in our nation's laws.
Another such group, the Family Research Council, had this to say: "Fortunately, Governor Phil Bryant . . . who's been tough as nails under pressure, didn't roll over before—and has no plans of doing so now. The winner of FRC's Samuel Adams Religious Freedom Award is already looking forward 'to an aggressive appeal.'"
And so, as in every seminal chapter of our nation's history, we again see deep contestation around the interplay of faith, public life and human dignity. In the closing section of his ruling, Judge Reeves wrote: "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. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi's citizens."
From Mississippi to the Carolinas, I've heard many people echo Joce's words. But I've also heard LGBT people in their 80s describe the feeling of being legally married, and kids talk about coming out in rural high schools and being met with support. All of this speaks to how nuanced LGBT life in the South is, and to the hope and urgency that so many of us live with each day.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, a nonprofit that promotes LGBT equality across the South.