Judge blocks Mississippi law protecting religious objections to gay marriage

Almost at the last minute, a federal judge has declared a controversial Mississippi law unconstitutional.

The law, HB 1523, would have protected religious objections to gay marriage, extramarital sex and transgender identities. The judge says it favors some religious beliefs over others and would codify unequal treatment of LGBT people.

Attorneys for the state are expected to appeal the ruling, The Associated Press reports.

As the Two-Way has previously reported, the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" was described by its proponents as a religious freedom bill. But it didn't protect all religious beliefs. Here's Section 2 of the bill:

The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that:

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;

(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and

(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

Under the law, Mississippi residents who used one of those moral convictions to justify behavior — including individuals declining to offer business or medical services, religious organizations firing or disciplining employees, and state employees refusing to license marriages — could not be punished by the state.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the law, instead of protecting religious freedom, violated the First Amendment by essentially endorsing specific religious beliefs over others. Some of the plaintiffs in the case were religious leaders from denominations that do not object to gay marriage.

He also said the law was poised to cause irreparable harm to LGBT residents of Mississippi.

"There are almost endless explanations for how HB 1523 condones discrimination against the LGBT community, but in its simplest terms it denies LGBT citizens equal protection under the law," Reeves wrote.

He also noted that many of the protections offered by the law — the reasons proponents saw it as necessary — were already provided by the First Amendment and Mississippi's own Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Susan Hrostowski, one of the plaintiffs in the case, spoke to NPR's Morning Edition after the decision was announced.

"I'm an Episcopal priest, and I'm kind of crazy about the gospel, and I'm crazy about Jesus. And his message was that we should love one another so I found this bill to be offensive from that perspective," she said. "But then also as a lesbian -- I've been with my wife for 27 years now, and we have a son. And so for both of those reasons I just fought to make sure that people like me weren't mistreated in the state of Mississippi.

She said she was elated with the decision, and remembered back to a moment during the hearing when the case of Obergefell v. Hodges — the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states — came up:

"The judge was asking the state, what were the nonreligious reasons for this bill? And they said, 'Well, Obergefell tipped the tables of justice away from people who are against gay marriage.'

"And Judge Reeves said, 'Well, isn't that like saying Brown v. Board of Education tipped the tables away from segregationists?'

"You know, when you have an oppressed population and they make some gains, that doesn't mean the oppressor has the right to retaliate. ...

"Everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs. But not to the point that practicing those would impinge on my beliefs, and on my freedoms."

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