Gov. Phil Bryant is shooting back at opponents of House Bill 1523, calling claims about what the law would do “exaggerated” and “false.”
In a new brief filed Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys for Bryant sought to temper arguments that HB 1523 — a “religious freedom” law that has been ensnared in legal battles since its passage last year — would give Mississippians carte blanche to deny services to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.
“The individual accusations in the (Campaign for Southern Equality) plaintiffs’ parade of horribles are too numerous and too far-fetched for us spend time refuting at the retail level,” attorneys for the governor wrote in the brief.
“Suffice it to say that the appellants will not, under any circumstance, interpret HB 1523 to shield restaurateurs that refuse to seat homosexual couples; foster parents who inflict child abuse; counselors who fail to take appropriate steps to prevent suicides; boisterous or disruptive state employees; county clerks who fail to recuse themselves in the manner specified by (the law); or jewelers who refuse to sell engagement rings to cohabiting couples.”
Attorneys for the original plaintiffs have used these examples in their earlier briefs.
HB 1523, which 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 of the law say doing so unfairly targets gay, lesbian and transgender individuals for discrimination.
In June 2016, two lawsuits — Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant — challenged the law in federal court, saying 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 the law was set to take effect on July 1, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves issued a thorough ruling detailing the reasons he said the law “does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”
One week later, Bryant filed his appeal with the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. Attorney General Jim Hood, who had defended the law, declined to defend it further, saying in a statement shortly after Reeves handed down his decision that “the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB 1523 protected religious freedoms.”
Outside counsel quickly signed on to Bryant’s appeal pro-bono. Attorneys for the governor’s appeal include Jonathan F. Mitchell, a St. Louis-based attorney, and Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a coalition of Christian organizations including Tupelo-based American Family Association and Colorado-based Focus on the Family, among others.
Friday’s response brief, penned by these new attorneys, forcefully pushes back against many mainstream beliefs about the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, calling out anyone who sees these groups as a protected minority class. Instead, they argue, they are a minority with with unprecedented political muscle.
“Homosexuals cannot qualify as a “suspect class” because homosexuals are not politically powerless, and sexual orientation is not an “immutable” trait akin to race. Homosexuals have enormous political clout, especially in the Democratic Party, and their political power has been growing and continues to grow,” according to Friday’s brief.
The brief cites the “conniptions invoked” when then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence signed a bill similar to HB 1523 into law in his state.
Attorneys for the governor also challenge the idea, mentioned in previous briefs, that sexual orientation is a protected class, like race, because sexual orientation, like race, is not a choice.
“Lack of “choice” over one’s sexual orientation is not evidence of “immutability”; sexual orientation can be fluid or malleable even if one is not consciously directing or choosing those changes, and even if one feels that they have little or no choice over the changes that are occurring,” attorneys for Gov. Bryant wrote in their brief.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs of the case declined to comment.