Experts: ‘Religious Freedom’ bill is lawsuit waiting to happen

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Unnecessary and unconstitutional are how Mississippi legal experts describe House Bill 1523, which is expected to go to Gov. Phil Bryant for consideration next week.

Proponents say the proposed law seeks to protect citizens’ “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” to refuse public or private service to same-sex marriage couples.

“This bill is incredibly unconstitutional,” said George Cochran, constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “I think lightning will strike if this (bill) is signed into law.”

Matthew Steffey, a Mississippi College School of Law professor, agrees.

“It’s an easy-to-win lawsuit,” Steffey predicted. “This is political, not legal.”

On the Senate floor late Wednesday, Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, responded to senators’ questions about HB 1523, saying the measure is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June in Obergefell v. Hodges to uphold same-sex marriage.

The House approved changes to the bill made by the Senate on Friday, but final House action was delayed until Monday. Gov. Phil Bryant then must decide whether to sign the bill. Mississippi Today reported Thursday that the ACLU and other groups are preparing to sue the state if Bryant signs the bill into law.

During debate Wednesday night and again in an interview Thursday, Branning adamantly supported the legislation, saying the bill simply defends businesses and religious organizations from discrimination by the government.

“People are under the misconception that this is a discriminatory bill,” Branning said. “Really, it doesn’t discriminate against anyone. It protects people in this state who feel they could be discriminated against themselves by the government.”

Steffey says that in his view HB 1523 has no legitimate, legal purpose because any concerns about protection of religious freedoms already exist in the Mississippi Religious Freedom Act passed several years ago and also in federal law, which supercedes any state law.

“A person’s sincerely held religious belief is already protected in strong terms from government burdens,” Steffey said. HB 1523 “is either redundant or irrelevant,” he said.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III overruled a Mississippi ban on adoption by same-sex couples, saying the state law – in effect since 2000 – violates the equal-protection and due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

HB 1523 brings up the same issues, Steffey said.

Existing law requires that citizens “treat all religious beliefs the same and treat all marriages the same,” he said, noting that “even other Southern states have realized” that these kinds of efforts, like HB 1523, have consequences: either costing state treasuries legal fees in defending lawsuits or in dampening economic development and tourism business.

Cochran said he is troubled by the proposal.

“In addition to the legislation reflecting a unique use of state power to declare war on those choosing to engage in constitutionally protected activity,” he said, “it gives the right to discriminate to those with ‘sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions’ without further definition.

“Frightening,” he added.

  • Tammy Rainey

    “Existing law requires that citizens “treat all religious beliefs the same”

    Exactly. Elevating these three doctrines above all others is so obviously unconstitutional that it ought disqualify a lawmaker from office for even trying it.