Attorney Roberta Kaplan speaks outside court. Jocelyn Pritchett is in the center background with glasses. Credit: Mississippi Today

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JACKSON — A plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit that overturned the state’s gay adoption ban testified in court Thursday that she is moving out of state because the “religious freedom” law has made Mississippi an unsafe place for gays and lesbians to raise families.

Jocelyn Pritchett, a lifelong state resident, said that the passage of the law known as HB 1523 has ennobled the opponents of gay marriage, making them more vocal — and more active.

“There’s an overall sense that the hatred towards us is escalating. And we’re terrified,” Pritchett said.

“It just felt that the state will never stop pursuing this and we have to get (our children) somewhere they’re safe,” she said.

In emotional testimony punctuated by pauses to wipe her eyes and gather herself, Pritchett talked about friends whose daughter was ridiculed in class by a public school teacher because she had two moms. She said the teacher told the six-year-old her parents weren’t really married under the law, then polled the other students in the class to show that they each had a mom and a dad.

“They’re terrified of being public,” Pritchett said, when asked why the couple wasn’t in court telling the story themselves. “And they’re (feeling) guilty for not testifying, but they wouldn’t put a target on their little girl’s back.”

Pritchett said that she’d seen flyers, left by the Ku Klux Klan in Laurel, that threatened gays and lesbians, and she said she has gay male friends in the Delta who are afraid to go out to dinner.

Attorneys who are defending the law for the state declined to challenge Pritchett’s testimony.

Pritchett’s testimony capped off a long afternoon of plaintiff’s witnesses in the first day of hearings on two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 1523. Douglas NeJaime, a professor of law and director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, testified in the morning about the relationship between the Christian right and the rise in “religious freedom” laws.

Signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, HB 1523 singles out three “sincerely held” 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 speaks out against gay marriage or transgender individuals because of these beliefs. This includes government officials such as county clerks, who don’t want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and public school teachers.

Barber vs Bryantwith multiple plaintiffs represented by the Mississippi Center for Justice, and Campaign for Southern Equality vs Bryant are asking U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves to grant a preliminary injunction against the law, which takes effect July 1. They argue that endorsing some religious beliefs while ignoring others violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits government from favoring one religion over another.

To support this claim, the plaintiffs included four members of the clergy among their witnesses, each of whom testified that the “sincerely held religious beliefs” endorsed in the law ran counter to their own. Rev. Susan Hrostowski, a co-plaintiff in the Campaign for Southern Equality’s lawsuit, said that as an Episcopal priest and lesbian, she was “very sad and very angry” when she heard HB 1523 had passed.

“This is represented as ‘the Christian view,’ and that condemnation, that judgmentalism is seen as what Christians are,” Hrostowski said. “And no. That is the antithesis of Jesus. That is the antithesis of Christianity.”

Roberta Kaplan, lead attorney on the Campaign for Southern Equality’s lawsuit, noted, “There’s never before been a statute like this that says there are three religious beliefs and these religious beliefs have precedence over every other religious belief out there, even though we know that there are very many religious people out there who have the exact opposite beliefs.”

Defense attorney Tommy Goodwin, arguing for the governor and John Davis, executive director of the state’s Department of Human Services, said in court that laws such as HB 1523 seek only to “level the playing field” by ensuring that the recently gained rights of LGBT individuals don’t violate the rights of religious Mississippians.

The adoption lawsuit, in which Campaign for Southern Equality and Hrostowski were also plaintiffs along with Pritchett, was mentioned by both sides numerous times as another example of Mississippi discriminating against gays and lesbians. But Douglas Miracle, who represented defendants Judy Moulder (in her capacity as Mississippi’s state registrar of vital records) and the attorney general, argued that HB 1523 was an entirely different beast.

“Unlike the adoption prohibition, 1523 doesn’t have any similar convictions that prevent you from doing anything,” Miracle asked Hrostowski, in his cross-examination.

Hrostowski agreed.

The hearing continues today. Attorneys say they anticipate Reeves issuing his ruling on the preliminary injunction before July 1.

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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.