JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi government attorneys are opposing two legal challenges to a new state law that will let circuit clerks cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Both challenges were filed in federal court this month. One is a new lawsuit, and one is an attempt to reopen a 2014 lawsuit that helped overturn the state's ban on gay marriage. State attorneys filed responses to both this week.
Campaign for Southern Equality and two lesbian couples filed papers May 10 seeking to reopen their 2014 lawsuit to challenge the new law. State attorneys said Tuesday that the lawsuit should remain shut.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a gay couple from Meridian on May 9 sued Judy Moulder, the state registrar of vital records. They're asking a federal judge to declare that House Bill 1523 violates the equal-protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment. They're also seeking an injunction that would block the bill from becoming law July 1.
Mississippi's law is among similar measures being passed across the country in response to last summer's Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Special Assistant Attorney General Doug Miracle, representing Moulder, argues there's no reason for a judge to block the law. Even if a circuit clerk refuses to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, the bill says someone in the office must issue it promptly, Miracle wrote in papers filed Tuesday.
Clerks recusing themselves from issuing licenses must file a form with the vital records registrar, which is why the plaintiffs sued Moulder.
Miracle wrote that "there may never be a recusal by any government employee" to issue a marriage license in any of Mississippi's 82 counties.
"Even if some recusals are invoked in the future, these particular plaintiffs may seek a marriage license from a clerk's office in which there have been no recusals," Miracle wrote.
During arguments in the Republican-led House and Senate, legislators did not say what would happen if all employees of a clerk's office in a county file forms saying they have religious objections to issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The men suing the state , Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, are both 26. They live in Meridian, have been engaged since 2014 and said they hope to marry in Mississippi in the next three years.
Miracle argues that the men's case is built largely on hypothetical situations that might harm them at some unknown point in the future.
"The Supreme Court has consistently declined to find standing where an injury may occur at some unknown point in the future," he wrote.
The day the suit was filed, Alford said he and Thomas, who are both African-American, grew up with grandparents who had faced racial discrimination. Alford said he and Thomas don't want to face anti-gay bias.
"We thought that we would be equal, and here we are today saying that we're not, and we want equality," Alford said May 9 outside the federal courthouse in Jackson.
Court records show no hearing has been set for either lawsuit.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and other supporters of the Mississippi law say it will protect people's religious belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Opponents say it discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.