Metro Weekly

Mississippi’s anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” law is now in full effect

HB 1523 condones anti-LGBTQ discrimination based on three specific religious beliefs

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant – Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia.

One of the nation’s most sweeping anti-LGBTQ laws has gone into effect in Mississippi, despite valiant attempts to stop it.

Signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in early 2016, it was a response to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage equality. HB 1523, as the bill was known, was also one of several anti-LGBTQ laws floated across the country as a solution to allow people who object to same-sex marriage to refuse service to same-sex couples.

Because lawmakers were keen not to explicitly state the denial of wedding-based services to same-sex couples, HB 1523’s language is deliberately vague, allowing any business or individual, including those working on behalf of the state or local government, to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” as justification for discriminating against LGBTQ people.

The law singles out three specific religious beliefs that are protected above all others: the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, that sexual relations are “properly confined” to such a marriage, and that sex is an innate characteristic assigned at birth and cannot change.

Under these broad provisions, store owners can turn away any person they perceive as LGBTQ. Doctors can potentially refuse to treat LGBTQ patients or deny them medicine because of objections to a gay or transgender person’s “lifestyle.” State employees can refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and public school counselors can turn away LGBTQ youth seeking emotional support or help.

The law finally took effect this week after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that it does not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. A lower court had ruled that Mississippi could not implement the law until the courts decided on its constitutionality. However, that injunction is now lifted, opening the floodgates to various forms of legalized discrimination.

“I am so terribly sorry that this unconstitutional and hateful law has to go into effect, even for one day or hour,” Roberta Kaplan, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case of Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant III, which challenged HB 1523 at the district level.

“Nevertheless,” Kaplan continued, “we remain determined to make sure that HB 1523 remains in effect for as short a time period as possible and is soon relegated to where it belongs — the dustbin of history.”

The Campaign for Southern Equality has set up a hotline and will be accepting email and Facebook messages from LGBTQ Mississippians to report and document instances of discrimination, which can potentially be used for a future lawsuit by demonstrating the harm the law inflicts on LGBTQ people.

“The insidious power of a law like this is that it casts a long shadow over public life, forcing someone to assess whether they will be treated fairly and respectfully in situations from the crisis of an emergency room to an anniversary dinner at a restaurant to a child’s classroom,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement.

“Now we face the cruel reality of the law going into effect and the imminent threat it poses to the dignity, health and well-being of LGBT Mississippians.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com