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

A federal judge stopped Mississippi’s controversial “religious freedom” law Thursday night, minutes before it was set to take effect.

In a opinion that cited scripture and Mississippi’s segregationist past, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves said House Bill 1523, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, was another unfortunate example of Mississippi trying to write discrimination into its laws.

“Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens,” Reeves wrote in his opinion.

For opponents of the law, Reeves’s ruling was a triumph over a bill that they believe used religion as a Trojan horse to sneak discrimination into state law.

“Our state legislature has no business passing a law that gives protections to one set of religious beliefs over another. When there is no separation of church and state, there is no freedom of religion,” Carol Burnett, a United Methodist minister in Biloxi and plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, said in a statement released after Judge Reeves’s opinion.

But supporters of House Bill 1523 are disheartened that a federal court has dealt a near-mortal blow to a law that they say is essential to protecting the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

“I am disappointed in Judge Reeves’s ruling on House Bill 1523,”  Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who was the author of the bill, said in a statement. “We felt like this was a good bill that focused on protecting religious beliefs, while also protecting the rights of the LGBT community.”

Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, two of the bill’s most prominent advocates, said the state should stand by its law and appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The state’s attorneys should quickly appeal this outrageous ruling that undermines Mississippians’ freedom to practice their religious beliefs as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Reeves said in a statement.

Bryant also issued a statement: “Like I said when I signed House Bill 1523, the law simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law. I am disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality. I look forward to an aggressive appeal.”

Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat holding statewide office, said he will appeal Reeves’s decision earlier this week saying circuit clerk’s cannot recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gays because, as Hood noted, the clerks were never parties to the suit.

But Hood said he’s undecided about whether he will appeal the decision handed down Thursday night. He said he he has major reservations about the merits of the lawsuit — and the origins of the law.

“I can’t pick my clients, but I can speak for myself as a named defendant in this lawsuit. The fact is that the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB 1523 protected religious freedoms,” Hood said in a statement.

“Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies.  No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason.  I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man.”

House Bill 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.

It was the second time Reeves ruled against HB 1523 this week. In a separate decision Monday, Reeves indicated that he would invalidate the part that allowed clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But that ruling didn’t address any other aspects of the law, which was set to go into effect July 1. Private business owners, such as caterers, and other state officials, such as public school counselors, were still allowed to refuse marriage-related services to gay, lesbian and transgender Mississippians.

Thursday’s ruling, however, invalidates every facet of House Bill 1523. The two lawsuits it addresses, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant III, took aim at the whole law by arguing it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. These prohibit government from favoring one religion over another and one group of citizens over another, respectively.

“(House Bill 1523) said that those three religious beliefs and no others get preeminence in Mississippi, and if you share one or more of them then you essentially get a free pass to do whatever the hell you want, no matter how discriminatory or offensive it is to your gay and lesbian neighbors,” said Roberta Kaplan, lead attorney on the Campaign for Southern Equality lawsuits.

“And because it has those elements, it is clearly, in our view and Judge Reeves’s view, a violation of this fundamental principle, one of the principles our country really was founded on,” Kaplan said. “It can’t preference one religion over another, it can’t take sides in religious debate, it needs to stay neutral. And that’s exactly what this statute does, it’s kind of a classic establishment clause violation.”

If there is no appeal, Judge Reeves’s ruling will mark the short, but controversial life of this law. Although the bill passed the Mississippi House and Senate with relatively little public scrutiny in late March, by the time it crossed the governor’s desk for his signature on April 5, #HB1523 had begun trending on Twitter as national media portrayed the bill as being “steeped in bigotry towards LGBT individuals.”

Over the next few weeks, more opponents of House Bill 1523 began to speak out. The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, compiled a list of companies critical of the law, while some Mississippians took their own forms of action. The Mississippi Picnic, a 37-year-old tradition held in New York’s Central Park, was cancelled over fear of protests and anger at the law’s passage.

Approximately 300 people march in front of the Governor's Mansion protesting the Mississippi law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples and transgender people.
Approximately 300 people march in front of the Governor’s Mansion May 1 protesting House Bill 1523.

Concerned that the negative publicity could affect tourism, cities such as Natchez and Biloxi began to pass their own resolutions affirming a “commitment to diversity.”  On May 1, the HRC, along with allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center, staged a protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion. Chanting “no hate in our state,” more than 300 attendees implored Gov. Bryant to repeal the law.

But these requests went unanswered. The governor rarely spoke about the legislation, but when he did he stood by the law, like last month, when the conservative Family Research Council awarded Gov. Bryant its Samuel Adams Award for signing House Bill 1523.

“If it takes crucifixion, we will stand in line before abandoning our faith and our belief in our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ,” the governor said in his acceptance speech.

Other advocates of the “religious freedom” law said that the national attention — and fury — caught them off guard.

J.P. Wilemon
Sen. J.P. Wilemon

“If you notice, a lot of people that’s against the bill came out against it after it passed,” Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont, said in April. Wilemon voted for a bill he said “fit” his beliefs.

“We didn’t hear a word about it until the bill passed. But it’s a lot easier to come out and say you’re against something (after it’s passed).”

As the national spotlight was trained on the controversy, behind the scenes opponents of the law were preparing for a different battle — in federal court. On May 9, the ACLU filed the first lawsuit challenging the law, arguing that the “religious exemption” stigmatized gay and lesbian Mississippians, treating them with a different set of standards. Last week, Judge Reeves denied their request for a preliminary injunction on the basis that the plaintiffs, who said they were seeking to marry in the next three years, were not in “immediate harm.”

One day later, the Campaign for Southern Equality filed a motion to reopen the 2014 lawsuit that overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage and asked Judge Reeves to apply his ruling in that case to this one. This was the first challenge to get a hearing, and as of Monday the first to invalidate part of the law, when Judge Reeves ordered that all 82 county clerks must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But the centerpiece of the fight against House Bill 1523 were the two lawsuits Judge Reeves ruled on Thursday, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant III. Filed within days of each other just three weeks ago, these lawsuits were the first to use the First and Fourteenth Amendments to challenge what legal scholars have called a “blatantly unconstitutional” law.

“The Establishment Clause and Equal Protection — it’s an obvious violation,” said Matt Steffey, a constitutional law expert and Mississippi College of Law professor earlier this month. “It’s really a mishmash of constitution problems. I do not believe it will see the light of day.”

And while it didn’t, both its opponents and supporters agree that for a law that never took effect, it will leave a significant imprint on the state of Mississippi.

Rob McDuff
Rob McDuff

“It’s very interesting. It’s been an incredibly divisive bill,” said Rob McDuff, co-counsel on Barber with the Mississippi Center for Justice. “I think it has encouraged a greater level of discrimination against gay and lesbian Mississippians than existed already.”

“On the other hand, there was a tremendous outpouring of opposition to this bill by straight people, gay people, lesbian people, transgender people, throughout the state and that was surprising to me. And I think it’s encouraging in terms of our prospects for the future.”

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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.

27 replies on “Federal judge blocks HB 1523”

  1. 1523 writes religious beliefs into law. I have always believed government should dictate religious beliefs, and doctrine should be managed by the state.

    1. Well then, You don’t seem to favor the Constitution, which is where the freedoms you enjoy were made available to all, God willing

    2. That’s the problem with 1523: It makes three SPECIFIC religious beliefs more important than all others. The First Amendment protects ALL religious beliefs equally, but it does NOT allow anti-LGBT religious beliefs of *some* people to all but wipe out LGBT people’s civil rights like 1523 does.

      I don’t know if you’re just being facetious, but government should NOT dictate religious beliefs OR manage doctrine; that blatantly violates the First Amendment rights of those whose beliefs or doctrine don’t agree. But again, that’s the problem with 1523: It denies one group of people their rights in the name of “protecting” another’s.

        1. Poe’s Law, section 18 subsection B, line 41:

          “Not applicable in Mississippi.”

    3. AND THIS is why it is CLEAR that you don’t understand the founding principals of the Constitution

    4. So, you’ve never read the First Amendment to the Constitution which states that the governent “shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” You might want to check that out.

  2. Why does the author repeatedly misspell the word “principles”? And why fail accurately to refer to the FRC as a Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate group, rather than the bland “conservative”?

  3. YOUR ,,”RELIGIOUS FREEDOM is in YOUR home,,it is in YOUR CHURCH,,,,, and it ENDS on everyone’s sidewalk,,,
    Religion / Christianity demands acceptance of the supernatural and reject the natural
    ,Isn’t religion GREAT? It legitimizes a reason to hate maybe even kill your neighbor AND it gives you a God to forgive you for doing so
    Science can fly you to the moon
    Religion flys you into buildings
    Reason why teaching in superstition /religious beliefs,to a minor child should be a felony it destroys the ability to think critically for life…..

  4. If that is truly your belief and view ehich I hope its not because that would mean your education about the greatest document ever written is sorely lacking. Lets forget for a moment secual identity and origins. As a hetrosexual female, who does not recognize your beliefs as my own, what you are saying is that I should there for be forced to believe and worship as people who no nothing about me, my culture or my beliefs because the government dictates my beliefs. Pretty much like the settlers did to the native Americans? Im sorry for you if you dont see the beauty of diversity and different beliefs

    1. And is it right for the gays to force there life style on to everyone,and make CHRISTIANS go againest there belief?God’s says being gay is wrong it is a sin.So why is it ok for the gays to make Christians go againest there beliefs?There was nothing wrong with the bill.The reson why no one like it is because it ALSO PERTECT THE CHRISTIAN,AND THERE RIGHTS.

      1. They are not aski g “Christians” to do a thing for them, They are asking to be yreated like EVERYONE else and that religion not be used to discriminate against them. and it also says in the buble that “God created man in his image” also its ok to sell your daughters into slavery and that anyone not resti g in the sabath should be stoned. It is 2016 not 16 ad times and the world changes perhaps you should try not to take ot so literal and live in the real world where we are all luckily free and should be given the same rights as anyone else


          1. Yeah yeah go suck on your bible you bible beating hypocrit, Love is love and it is really none of yoyr business if they arent breaking the law which they arent, so take that King James version if the bible and shove it. Did they make you attend or perform the wedding? Ummmm No, they did not. Did they ask you to perform the ceremony, cater it or other wise partucipate in their private special moment? Probably not, because tgey do not want a homophobic bible beating tyrannt attending tgeir special time. So uf you ever recieve such an invitation you can kindly decline and follow you fucking beliefs moron.

          2. Im sorry your so full of hate.even when I told you that I have gay friends and a A FAMILY member that is gay and that there uo set WITH THE WAY SOME OF THE GAYS ARE DOING the Christian’s.You I love everyone Like the BIBLE says you LOVER THE SINNER NOT THE SIN.For some reason that’s the part YOU CAN’T understand stand.I will keep you in my Prayers

          3. Well thank you for the thought but you see I understand the bible alot better tgan you think, I am curious because you say love the sinner not the sin but you want u
            Your religous views protected against anyone who violates those views, ummm that is not love that is discrimmination. If as you say you love them then they should have the same rights as you, I make no apologies for my beliefs but then my religious views have not discrimminated or tried to destroy all other religous or cultural belief’s that do not agree with yours. I love that your beliefs are more important than someone who just wants to be happy my beliefs are do not impede on yours yet you would have me discriminated against because it makes you uncomfortable. Keep your preyers for those who can not see that even Jesus Christ took in the lowest of society into his inner circle and made them a part of his flock.

          4. He also made Cain and Able should they condon murder then, God also asked Jacob to sacrafice his son, he also an eye for an eye and that women were ti keep themselves seperat from men during their menic and hoe did Adam and Eve populate the earth? Where did Cain and Ables wives come from? He also said that men coukd sell their daughters into slavery and that women were evik because of Eves sin so I am pretty sure that your God is either the most bored diety around or is simply a twisted interpatation of a bunch of celibat monks who did not like women either way the reality is that Christianity is not abgood enough reason to deny some one their rights

      2. it promotes discrimination it doesnt proect anyone but CHRISTIANS, sobPLEASE save the bible thumping rehetoric for the gullable and blind

      3. Nobody is making the fucking Christians go against there belief’s, I have many gay friends and my aunt who is gay and NEVER have I heard any if them say we are going to make you go against your belief but you can not use that belief to deny another person whether tgey are gay or straight the same rights you and I have, just because you believe in a book written by woman hating monks over 2 thousand years ago


          1. And I too have friends that gay and a family member and they think that what some of the gays are doing to the Christian’s are wrong too.

  5. If the bigots think it’s such a great, and constitutional, law, let them pay the lawyers to pursue it, and not have the taxpayers foot the bill.

  6. And Tony Perkins too
    (yes, I’m gloating – I normally attempt to be civil but this offense was so heinous I’m making an exception)

  7. America must go to war within itself, we must protect our country, families, and children, against the sex group lgbt, all races and nationalities of people living here now in America must come together now!!, to stop the homosexuals from distroying all other people’s rights, that this sex group of perverts that the government has allowed here in the united states to mate with each other and marry ( LEGAL) . Just because the president and his ( mate) are involved with this sex group, and others involved with this perverted sex group employed in our federal system, are taking advantage of their position in the government to promote, and VIOLATE all other Americans, we as Americans must uphold honor to our Religious beliefs, and or personal beliefs, and protect them, the perverted sex group lgbt MUST be placed back into a quite hidden from the public, area, and Must be put in its place, ( because it has no place). And that’s a fact !!

    1. You and people like you are the very reason people are fighting against this bill. You are a sick minded person that thinks your beliefs should be forced on everyone. This is the very reason our forefathers wrote the first amendment which clearly states the separation of church and state. I love how people like to pick and choose which of the amendments of the constitution they want to uphold and which they want to violate. What about an Atheist, are they to be forced to believe in your God because you say so. I challenge you to go read the 1st, 12th and 14th amendment. Those are the laws we live by and not someone that wants to rule others lifes

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