A year after it was first signed by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a discriminatory religious freedom measure has officially become law thanks to a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The deceptively named “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” was approved by Gov. Bryant in April 2016, just days after North Carolina passed the now infamous HB 2.
While the nation focused most of its attention on the Tar Heel state’s anti-trans law, activists warned against the dangers of Mississippi’s HB 1523, which would allow individuals, businesses and religiously-affiliated organizations (including schools and hospitals) to deny service on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Thankfully, the law was struck down by a district court in July, minutes before it was set to become law. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that HB 1523 “put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others” and “violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws.”
The matter was then challenged in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Barber v. Bryant. Arguments for and against the law were presented in April, with judges ruling this Thursday that HB 1523 should officially become law.
“We are deeply disappointed that the actions taken today by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clear the path for the anti-LGBTQ law HB 1523 to take effect in Mississippi,” said Rob Hill, HRC Mississippi state director. “This law—now the most discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ state law in the country—was rooted in hate, it targets the LGBTQ community and it is a deliberate attempt to undermine marriage equality and the dignity of LGBTQ Mississippians who lawmakers have sworn to serve and protect.”
Under this law, almost any individual or organization could justify discrimination not only against LGBT people, but also unwed couples, single mothers, non-Christian Mississippians and others. Taxpayer funded organizations could refuse to recognize same-sex marriages for provision of critical services, ban LGBT parents from adopting children, refuse to sell homes to LGBT families and even subject LGBT children to conversion therapy.
“This law is discriminatory, and we will do everything we can to prevent it from causing any more harm,” said Beth Orlansky, advocacy director for the Mississippi Center for Justice. “By promoting a law that singles out a particular group for discriminatory treatment, the state of Mississippi sends a message to the rest of the country that not everyone is welcome in the ’Hospitality State.'”
Upon learning of the ruling, Gov. Bryant remarked, “As I have said all along, the legislation is not meant to discriminate against anyone, but simply prevents government interference with the constitutional right to exercise sincerely held religious beliefs.”
House Speaker Phil Gunn, who authored the anti-LGBT law, added: “We are pleased to see that it is now in effect [because] the whole objective was to protect religious freedoms.”
Contrary to popular belief, most Christians oppose religious freedom laws, with a recent poll showing that less than half of evangelical Protestants believe small businesses should be able to deny services on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.