U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves

The federal judge who struck down House Bill 1523 in June has denied Gov. Phil Bryant’s request for a stay. As a result, the law will not go into effect while the case is before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a short but direct decision, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves said the governor and his attorneys had not convinced him that their appeal was likely to succeed in court.

“The final element asks whether the public interest is served by a stay. It is not. In this case the public interest is better served by maintaining the status quo – a Mississippi without HB 1523,” Judge Reeves said in his decision. “To the extent the preliminary injunction will help alleviate the damage wrought on this State by an HB 1523-caused economic boycott, moreover, that too supports denying a stay of the injunction.”

Roberta Kaplan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in one of the two lawsuits that challenged House Bill 1523, said the judge had issued a clear and forceful decision.

“Given the fact that in his original opinion he enjoined the enforcement and implementation of 1523, I guess it’s not a surprise that he refused to change his mind, as the governor had asked him to do here,” Kaplan said. “But again, like in his original decision, he reached those results, not in prose but in poetry. And the clear and simple logic of his ruling will stand the test of time.”

Attorneys for the governor said that despite the judge’s decision, they are confident their arguments will hold up on appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the district court’s ruling and look forward to defending the constitutionality of HB 1523, a good law that affirms freedom in Mississippi, before the 5th Circuit,” said Jim Campbell, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the governor in his appeal.

House Bill 1523, which Gov. Bryant signed into law in April, 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 would protect from litigation anyone who refuses marriage-related services because of these beliefs. Opponents say doing so unfairly targets gay, lesbian and transgender individuals for discrimination.

In June, Judge Reeves heard arguments in two lawsuits seeking to strike down the law. Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant and Barber v. Bryant argued that House Bill 1523 was unconstitutional because it violates 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.

Minutes before midnight on July 1, when House Bill 1523 was set to go into effect, Judge Reeves issued his ruling striking down the law. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a press release the next day saying he did not support the law. One week later, Gov. Bryant filed a notice of appeal and a request for a stay on Judge Reeves’s ruling. He was later joined in his appeal by a second defendant, John Davis of the Department of Human Services. In addition to the Alliance Defending Freedom, they are being represented pro bono by attorneys Jonathan Mitchell and John Sauer.

The governor’s attorneys had argued that forcing those who object to same-sex marriage to provide those services to gays or lesbians was like forcing a doctor to perform an abortion or forcing a conscientious objector to fight in a war, both of which are protected rights. But Judge Reeves did not agree.

“Issuing a marriage license to a gay couple is not like being forced into armed combat or to assist with an abortion. Matters of life and death are sui generis. If movants truly believe that providing services to LGBT citizens forces them to ‘tinker with the machinery of death,’ their animus exceeds anything seen in Romer, Windsor, or the marriage equality cases,” Judge Reeves said in his decision.

Rob McDuff, co-counsel on Barber v. Bryant, said that Judge Reeves’s opinion on Monday is in line with his original decision striking down House Bill 1523 in June.

“It was no surprise he reached the same conclusion yesterday.  He was right (in June) and he was right yesterday,” McDuff said.

The fate of House Bill 1523 now rests with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The baton is now passed,” Judge Reeves said.

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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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