Metro Weekly

Federal judge blocks part of Mississippi’s “religious freedom” law

Injunction blocks part of HB 1523 that would allow clerks to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses

U.S. Courthouse in Natchez, Miss. for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Credit: General Services Administration, via Wikimedia Commons).
U.S. Courthouse in Natchez, Miss. for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Credit: General Services Administration, via Wikimedia Commons).

A federal judge in Mississippi has issued a permanent injunction blocking part of the state’s “religious freedom” law.

HB 1523, as it’s known, allows individuals to refuse to serve LGBT individuals or same-sex couples due to religious beliefs. But it also extends that exemption to government officials, such as circuit clerks, who can recuse themselves from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, putting the law into conflict with a Supreme Court ruling from last year.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued a permanent injunction blocking the part of the law that pertains to county clerks, ruling that clerks cannot deny a same-sex couple a marriage license, The Clarion-Ledger reports. While Reeves hasn’t stopped the rest of HB 1523 from going into effect this Friday, he has allowed the Campaign for Southern Equality to reopen its case challenging Mississippi’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage.

At the crux of Reeves’ ruling was the finding that Mississippi had treated same-sex couples differently than their heterosexual counterparts until the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide via the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in June 2015. Reeves found that the part of HB 1523 that is blocked by his injunction attempts to circumvent Obergefell.

Reeves also said that Mississippi elected officials can disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and can find other ways to channel their energies, such as advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. But he warned lawmakers not to attempt to re-litigate the arguments seeking to dent same-sex couples marriage licenses, adding: “The judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.”

Roberta Kaplan, the lead counsel for the Campaign for Southern Equality, previously argued in court that HB 1523 oversteps its boundaries by going far beyond other religious accommodation legislation by setting out three religious beliefs that could be used to deny service to same-sex couples. But Paul Barnes, the attorney representing the state, pointed to the fact that no same-sex couple has been denied a marriage license in Mississippi since Obergefell. Barnes also argued that while clerks could recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the law outlines steps they must take to inform those couples of other ways they can obtain a license.

“A year after the Supreme Court guaranteed marriage equality in the Obergefell decision, we are delighted that Judge Reeves reaffirmed the power of federal courts to definitively say what the United States Constitution means, recognizing that the issue of gay and lesbian Mississippians’ right to marry on equal terms ‘will not be adjudicated anew after every session’ of the Mississippi Legislature,” Kaplan said, quoting Reeves’ findings. “We are confident that Judge Reeves will rule in favor of the gay and lesbian couples we are proud to represent.”

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