Sanderson Farms Inc., the state’s $2.7 billion poultry giant, publicly blasted House Bill 1523 last week, claiming it will continue to erode Mississippi’s economy until the courts overturn it for good.

In a brief filed with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday, Sanderson Farms, along with 11 other prominent Mississippian businesses and individuals, including former Ambassador John Palmer, said the “religious freedom” law “undermines the state’s primary policy goal of growing Mississippi’s economy.”

Former Ambassador John Palmer speaks at the dedication of the new $10 million Gertrude C. Ford MIND Research Center at UMMC.

“HB 1523 does nothing but hurt Mississippi. The law has no legitimate secular purpose, and whatever purpose the state might think up now is a sham for the Legislature’s religiously motivated decision to confer favored status on one set of Christian beliefs
about marriage and gender roles. No avowed purpose can save HB 1523 from scrutiny under the Establishment Clause (of the Constitution),” wrote the parties in their brief.

The bill, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, was struck down by a federal judge in June. Bryant immediately appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment concerning the Sanderson Farms brief.  

Friday capped nearly two months of filings as dozens of national and Mississippi-based companies and organizations drew battle lines through briefs siding with either the governor or with opponents of HB 1523.

One particularly high profile brief, filed by Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, voiced strong support for House Bill 1523.

The states and LePage said they were interested in “protecting the rights of their citizens” and argued that the federal court ruling that overturned the law “threatens the free-expression and religious-exercise rights of citizens and the ability of States to enact legislation to protect their citizens’ rights.” None of these states have enacted similar legislation.

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 would protect from litigation anyone who refuses marriage-related services because of these beliefs. Opponents of the law say doing so unfairly targets gay, lesbian and transgender individuals for discrimination.

In June, attorneys representing the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Mississippi Center for Justice challenged the constitutionality of the law, arguing it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

Minutes before the law was set to take effect on July 1, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves issued a swift and thorough ruling detailing the reasons he deemed the law unconstitutional, saying it “does not honor (the United States’) tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”

Since filing his appeal with the Fifth Circuit, Bryant has been joined by a second original defendant, John Davis, executive director of the Department of Human Services.

Friday’s amicus brief sides with Campaign for Southern Equality and Mississippi Center for Justice, arguing 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.

The Sanderson Farms brief also cites examples of economic fallout following House Bill 1523’s passage, including a handful of cancelled concerts, scrapped film productions and travel bans from other U.S. cities and states, such as California, New York and Washington, D.C. It says “the economic fallout in Mississippi was immediate — particularly for the state’s tourism and entertainment industry.”

Gov. Phil Bryant used flash cards during the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob to emphasize economic progress in the state.

The governor, however, has been bullish on the state’s economy of late. At the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob event in October, Bryant touted the state’s recent corporate hauls, including the Continental Tire plant in Hinds County, ABB in Senatobia and Raytheon, which will build fighter jet training systems in Meridian, as announced this week. In December, Gov. Bryant took to Facebook to announce the state’s unemployment rate of 5.6 percent is its lowest since 2004.

“Have we got challenges in Mississippi? Absolutely,” Bryant said in October. “… But we’re making great strides.”

The Sanderson Farms brief also cites a Texas Association of Business study, which claims the economic impact of similar legislation in Texas could cost that state upwards of a billion dollars and says “there is reason to believe that Mississippi will experience similar economic losses if HB 1523 is enacted.”

The other parties who joined Sanderson Farms and Palmer are Jack Reed Jr. of Tupelo; William A. Percy Jr. of Greenville; Tim Medley of Jackson; Talamieka Brice of Jackson; the Jackson-based law firm Sharpe & Wise; Kelly Kyle and Hal Caudell of Jackson; and Amber and Jessica Kirkendoll of Jackson.

The Fifth Circuit is expected to set the hearing for the first half of 2017.

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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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