Governor’s speech spurs legal exchange over ‘religious freedom’ law

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The Campaign for Southern Equality is using Gov. Phil Bryant’s remarks at an awards ceremony last week against him in its battle opposing the state’s “religious freedom” law, arguing in a new brief that he intends to continue blocking gay Mississippians’ access to marriage.

Gov. Phil Bryant

Gil Ford photography

Gov. Phil Bryant

Last Thursday, the Family Research Council awarded Bryant its Samuel Adams Religious Freedom Award for signing House Bill 1523 and “defending religious liberty for the citizens of Mississippi.” Accepting the award, Bryant said “if it takes crucifixion, we will stand in line before abandoning our faith and our belief in our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

In House Bill 1523, the state singles out three religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth. The law protects from litigation anyone who refuses services to gays, lesbians and transgender individuals because of these beliefs.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the Campaign for Southern Equality quoted the governor in its brief, arguing that he has now publicly said that he does not intend to “remedy the asserted violations” caused by the “religious freedom” law.

“One of the arguments that the governor said in our case was that the plaintiffs should not get relief from the court because there was nothing to suggest that the court needed to step in to protect the rights of gays and lesbians,” said Josh Kaye, an attorney on the Campaign for Southern Equality’s suit, referring to the attorney general and governor’s request last week for dismissal of the campaign’s motion.

“But the governor’s statement speaks for itself, as to why we need the federal court to protect the rights of gay and lesbian Mississippians under the U.S. Constitution. There’s clearly a reluctance to comply with the court’s mandate that gays and lesbians can’t be treated as second-class citizens.”

In 2014 Judge Carlton Reeves, ruling in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, struck down the section of the Mississippi Constitution that prohibited marriage between same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed this ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. As a result, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals closed the case.

The Campaign for Southern Equality’s current motion argues that House Bill 1523 violates this earlier decision from Reeves because allowing Mississippi officials to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples relegates these couples to second-class status.

The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a brief in its suit against the state’s “religious freedom” law.  On Tuesday, the ACLU asked Judge Daniel Jordan to issue a preliminary injunction to keep the law from taking effect on July 1, arguing that an injunction is essential to protecting the dignity of the plaintiffs, an engaged gay couple.

Attorneys for both the ACLU and the Campaign for Southern Equality said that they expect to hear from the judges in their respective suits this month.