New run at a ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia

A bill that would protect Mississippi churches and clergy from performing wedding-related services that violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs” has been filed by a House member.

The filing comes in the midst of an active federal lawsuit challenging the controversial House Bill 1523 that passed last year and was signed into law before being blocked by a federal judge from taking effect.

And a lawyer for plaintiffs challenging HB 1523 finds the new proposal a good substitute for HB 1523.

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, filed the new bill that generally provides state legal protection for “religious organizations, clergy, ministers and certain individuals” who refuse to conduct weddings or provide wedding-related services to any couple.

“I’m a firm believer of religious freedom,” Lamar told Mississippi Today on Wednesday. “I don’t think any pastor should ever be forced to perform a wedding. When you get to the point that government is forcing that on people, you’re going down the wrong road. It’s a very dangerous position to be in.”

Lamar, who serves as a deacon at First Baptist Church in Senatobia, first introduced the same bill, word-for-word, last session. The one-and-a-half page bill – a far cry from the comprehensive 13-page HB 1523 – made it out of the House committee last session but was recommitted when leadership decided to back HB 1523.

Lamar said Wednesday he has not spoken to House leadership about the bill in recent days. He noted that he does not believe the bill will make it out of committee this session. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Philip Gunn declined comment on the bill, noting it is still early in the legislative process.

Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, was the main sponsor of HB 1523. He said Wednesday he didn’t think the bill was necessary while HB 1523 is under consideration. Gipson chairs one of the two House judiciary committees.

“It would seem like it’s not necessary at this point,” Gipson said. “The other bill (HB 1523) is in litigation and we don’t have a ruling on that from the 5th Circuit Court. My thought is let’s see what the 5th Circuit says and if we can take another look at it.”

Rob McDuff, a plaintiff’s attorney in one of the federal lawsuits challenging HB 1523 lawsuit said: “I don’t think this bill is unconstitutional. It expresses what the Constitution already expresses: that ministers do not have to conduct weddings if they choose not to.”

“Catholic priests have never been required to perform Jewish weddings,” McDuff continued. “Rabbis have never been required to perform a Baptist wedding. Ministers are not required to go beyond their religious beliefs in terms of sanctifying marriages.”

“What the Legislature should do is repeal HB 1523 and replace it with this bill,” McDuff said. “Then the litigation can come to an end, the state can stop spending money on it and the controversy around 1523 can come to an end so we can all move on.”

Lamar said the new bill originated after a group of Presbyterian ministers came to him about two years ago about the issue. He said he did not consult with Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, the group that drafted HB 1523 after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage.

“If 1523 would have been upheld, I probably wouldn’t have introduced the bill this year,” Lamar said.

“Nobody’s trying to discriminate against anybody, but the bottom line is that the Obergfell decision, when it came down, created a newly created constitutional right (same sex marriage),” he said. “You also have a firmly established, since the beginning of our country, the First Amendment, religious freedom and the free exercise of religious rights.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine those two things don’t always necessarily fit nicely together,” Lamar said.

Lamar emphasized numerous times Wednesday that the bill would only apply to churches and ministers, unlike HB 1523, which applied to others who typically provide services for weddings like photographers, florists and bakers.

“It’s not designed to be the cake baker bill,” Lamar said.

HB 1523 is currently held up in a federal appeals court, as state leaders including Gov. Phil Bryant have challenged the federal judge’s ruling blocking the law from taking effect.

In June 2016, two lawsuits — Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant — challenged the law in federal district 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.

In addition to legally protecting those who refuse some wedding-related services, HB 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.

Contributing: Kate Royals