U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves Credit: Cleoinc.org

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U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves asked lawyers for the state in court Friday if its controversial “religious freedom law” would protect Mississippians with sincerely held religious beliefs against straight marriage, just as it protects those with sincerely held religious beliefs against gay marriage.

A beat of silence followed.

Paul Barnes, who is defending the attorney general and the registrar of vital records in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 1523, cleared his throat. Judge Reeves looked at him.

“I’m trying to parse it out,” Barnes said.

Almost a minute of silence followed. The other attorneys for the defense, Douglas Miracle and Tommy Goodwin, checked their notes. Someone coughed. Finally, Barnes leaned into his microphone.

“No, your honor. Based on the text it does not,” he said. “But I have not fully analyzed that question.”

The admission came near the end of two days of testimony about the lawsuits, Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, and Barber v Bryant, claiming that Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Both lawsuits are asking Reeves to grant preliminary injunction against the law to keep it from taking effect July 1.

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from favoring one religion over another while the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the government from favoring one group of citizens over another.

Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into law in April. It 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 refuses services to gays, lesbians and transgender individuals because of these beliefs. It does not protect anyone who refuses service to someone based on other “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

The discrepancy is the crux of the plaintiff’s argument that the state passed HB 1523 not to protect the free expression of religion but to erode the rights that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mississippians had recently won in Supreme Court decisions like Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor.

On Thursday the plaintiffs brought forward testimony from a parade of witnesses who described in detail, and often deeply emotionally, how they felt the state had violated their rights by endorsing the beliefs listed in House Bill 1523 over their own.

“We send our kids to school, we mow our lawn, we pay our taxes,” said Rev. Susan Hrostwoski, an Episcopal priest, lesbian and co-plaintiff in the Campaign for Southern Equality’s lawsuit. “And yet we were singled out as less than.”

In his argument to the court on Friday, Barnes countered that the state shouldn’t be responsible for how its laws make people “feel.”

“We don’t dispute how 1523 made them feel,” Barnes said. “But the intent (to discriminate) is missing.”

The plaintiffs, however, argued that the intent to discriminate was on full display the night of March 30, when the bill was debated on the Senate floor.

Roberta Kaplan, the lead attorney on the Campaign for Southern Equality’s lawsuit, argued that Sen. Jenifer Branning and other proponents of the law urged passage on what they said was the link between gay marriage’s opponents and Christian beliefs.

And Hrostowski paraphrased the governor when she testified that the Christian views Sen. Branning espoused offend her own.

“And then when the governor says Christians will line up to be crucified for this (law) — that is blasphemy,” Hrostowski said. “Jesus was crucified to atone for human sin, not so we can oppress each other.”

She said that her fear of being singled out or discriminated against had begun to affect every area of her life.

“As a lesbian — it’s a very visceral feeling,” Hrostowski testified. “All that fear, all that insecurity comes back, when you don’t know what restaurant you can go into without being thrown out.”

Reeves did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.

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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.

11 replies on “State admits HB 1523 doesn’t protect all”

  1. “We don’t dispute how 1523 made them feel,” Barnes said. “But the intent (to discriminate) is missing.”

    You have to laugh. MS lawyers are clearly not the sharpest people in this nation.

  2. The truly ironic part of this ‘law’ is that it’s quite clear that no one in the entire state has a clue that their precious Jesus had exactly NOTHING to say about homosexuality.

    And yet, this ‘law’ is all about their Christian belief that he did.

  3. I’m more interested in the state spelling out religious beliefs in a law. Do we now create a Committee of Doctrinal Beliefs?

  4. The most disturbing thing about the “sincerely held religious beliefs” is that if someone says, “I won’t serve f-gs”, that’s illegal.

    But if they say “I won’t serve f-gs because Jesus.” Then that’s honky dory.

  5. If this becomes “law” it would be only fair to require every “business” that intends to discriminate on “religious”, to explain in detail why the discrimination is heartfelt.

    Posted clearly at every entrance to said business and a required disclaimer on all advertising.

    Let the market rule that; but no LGBTQI person should have to approach any day in their own country/state/city/county like negotiating a minefield of “Christians” intent on using their reject to gain brownie points with God.

    So they can get into Heaven better/smoother/faster(?)/more VIP. Analyzed for what it is – gay human sacrifice so God will “like” them better – and we get a very sick and selfish, self-serving motivation, worthy of a Satanist.

    If they intend to discriminate in the name of God, they need to advertise the connect they are making, and live with the consequences. You’d think they’d jump at the chance to come out of the closet with their “heartfelt” bigotry, too.

    Fair, is fair.

      1. I STILL think they should be required to add a little line as to why they would serve non-Christian, so Jews would be aware that their ancestors’ killing of Jesus might still be smarting for some of them.

        This “law” only works if they are FORCED to at least give an official legal disclaimer detailing their strategy on getting better seats in the Afterlife, and why bending the law to exclude certain citizens – but not others – should be seen as a rational basis for law.

        Then we’d see what REALLY happens.

        “Stay Away” is illegal and unconstitutional in a public setting.

        “Stay away because of X, Y, and Z, specifically confirmed under civic scrutiny” might work.

        (unless you’re and antigay, running a “business”. lolz)

        1. This is Mississippi… The government has been in the business of choosing to promote one group and block others for as long as non-natives have lived here.

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