Metro Weekly

ACLU sues Mississippi over “religious freedom” law

Lawsuit primarily focuses on HB 1523's provision allowing government officials to discriminate

Welcome to Mississippi sign - Photo: photoua
Welcome to Mississippi sign

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Mississippi have filed a challenge to Mississippi’s HB 1523, a purported “religious freedom” law that allows businesses and individuals, including public officials, to refuse to provide goods or services to LGBT people, as well as others, like single mothers or those who have extramarital sex, who do not conform to preferred social mores.

Mississippi officials, including Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who signed the bill into law, have argued that it is essential to protecting religious liberty. But the law, as amended and passed, goes far beyond even its initial draft in terms of the exemptions it grants. For instance, the bill originally allowed people to refuse service based on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” but that language was changed to the broader and less well-defined term “sincerely held principles.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit, Alford v. Moulder, targets Judy Moulder, the state registrar of vital records, on behalf of Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, a gay couple who are engaged to be married and could face discrimination as a result of the law’s exemptions for public officials, government agencies, and organizations that receive taxpayer money.

“When HB 1523 passed, it was heartbreaking because it takes away our chance to finally be treated equally,” the couple said in a joint statement, adding that the law was a “slap in the face.”

“At a time when we’re supposed to be excited as a couple engaged to be married, this law permits discrimination against us simply because of who we are,” Alford and Thomas said. “This is not the Mississippi we’re proud to call home. We’re hopeful others will come to realize this and not allow this harmful measure to become law.”

In the complaint, lawyers for the ACLU cite the Supreme Court’s finding in last year’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized marriage equality nationwide, that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from denying same-sex couples the opportunity to marry. The lawsuit asks the court to declare HB 1523 unconstitutional and prevent it from being enforced by the state.

“On its face, HB 1523 violates the Fourteenth Amendment by subjecting the lawful marriages of same-sex couples to different terms and conditions than those accorded to different-sex couples,” the lawsuit argues. “By creating a separate and unequal set of laws applying only to the marriages of same-sex couples, “By creating a separate and unequal set of laws applying only to the marriages of same-sex couples, HB 1523 imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi.”

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