Mississippi State Capitol
Mississippi State Capitol

Twelve state residents and a Hattiesburg church have signed onto the third lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s controversial “religious freedom” law.

The latest lawsuit, filed in federal court on Friday, takes broad aim at House Bill 1523, claiming the law violates the Establishment and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Unlike the previous two challenges to the state’s “religious freedom” law, this suit includes heterosexual and transgender plaintiffs, in addition to the gay and lesbian couples traditionally at the center of this fight.

“It’s just that a lot of people disagree with this bill, many more than I think anyone realizes, and we had a large and diverse group of people who’ve come together and want to join this challenge,” said Rob McDuff, co-counsel with the Mississippi Center for Justice on the lawsuit.

“They’re all united in their strong disagreement with the narrow religious views that are endorsed and promoted with this bill.”

House Bill 1523, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed in April, 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.

But the three religious beliefs cited above are also the heart of this newest challenge, which centers on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“[T]he Legislature and Governor breached the separation of church and state, and specifically endorsed certain narrow religious beliefs that condemn same-sex couples who get married, condemn unmarried people who have sexual relations, and condemn transgender people. By endorsing and providing exclusive protection for those beliefs, H.B. 1523 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit names four defendants: the governor, Attorney General Jim Hood, Richard Berry, Executive Director of the State Department of Human Services, and the State Registrar of Vital Records, Judy Moulder. Moulder is also a defendant in the first suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in May, while the governor and attorney general are defendants in the second lawsuit, filed a day later by the Campaign for Southern Equality.

The Attorney General’s office declined to comment. None of the other defendants responded to requests for comment.

Much like having thirteen plaintiffs, naming four defendants is part of McDuff’s strategy to hit House Bill 1523 from all angles.

“It’s a broad challenge to the entirety of 1523,” McDuff said.

This lawsuit also shares an attorney with one of the other lawsuits. Rob McDuff is co-counsel on the Campaign for Southern Equality’s suit. The lead attorney on that case, Roberta Kaplan, declined to comment, but Oliver Diaz, lead attorney for the ACLU, said he thinks these overlaps only strengthen the argument against the “religious freedom” law.

“I don’t think it’s confusing at all. I think that there are many people who have been injured by 1523, and there are many types of injuries. Our complaint was not exclusive,” Diaz said. “And I think when a court sees how many people are being injured by 1523, I think it adds to the argument to enjoin the law from ever going into effect.”

However, the filing also adds to the likelihood that these lawsuits will be consolidated in some form, according to both McDuff and Diaz. Often lawsuits filed at the same time and targeting the same defendants are consolidated into one suit or assigned to the same judge. The Deepwater Horizion litigation ultimately consolidated more than 200 separate lawsuits.

“It’s rare that you have so many lawsuits on one issue being filed, but when that does happen it’s not unusual that you have those cases consolidated,” Diaz said.

One benefit to consolidation, according to McDuff, is that it could speed up the judge’s response. Like the ACLU’s lawsuit, the plaintiffs in Friday’s lawsuit are asking for an injunction that would prevent the law from going into effect on July 1. So speed is essential to getting the result they want, McDuff said.

“We are certainly going to try to have our case moved along on an expedited schedule, so it can be presented to whatever judge is hearing the case and decided prior to July 1,” he said. If it’s not, McDuff said he expected to see many more challenges to House Bill 1523 after July 1.

The plaintiffs in Friday’s lawsuit include an engaged gay man, a married lesbian couple, three ministers, two male and one female, a transgender woman, a transgender man, three community activists, a church “that promotes LGBT equality,” and an unmarried woman in a long term monogamous relationship. The complaint alleges that by protecting the three beliefs mentioned above, the state has violated the beliefs of each of the plaintiffs.

“It’s such a bizarre bill, especially the effort to endorse certain beliefs that actually demonize other people,” McDuff said, mentioning that in addition to gay and lesbian couples, this bill also singles out people who have premarital sex. “I’d be really be curious as to how many members of the legislature who voted for this bill had sex relations outside of marriage in their lives. It’s preposterous to me that people can be so hypocritical and endorse religious views that condemn so many people.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.

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