WASHINGTON — A federal judge halted the anti-LGBT religious exemption law passed in Mississippi earlier this year from going into effect — moments before it was due to do so.
"Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise, it creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity," U.S. District Court Carlton Reeves wrote of the law. "It is not rationally related to a legitimate end."
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill, HB 1523, into law on April 5. The bill provided protections for individuals, religious organizations, and certain businesses who take actions due to their "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions" to same-sex marriage — or any sex outside straight marriage. It also provided similar protections for those who object to transgender people.
The law prohibited the state from "discriminating" against people who act or refuse to act because of one of those beliefs. As Reeves put it, "An organization or person who acts on a [protected] belief is essentially immune from State punishment."
The law also provided that county clerks could recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses based on their religious or moral beliefs — a provision Reeves criticized in another ruling earlier this week.
The new law quickly faced several legal challenges, all of which were consolidated to be heard by Reeves. He heard arguments a week ago on a request to enjoin the law — or halt it from going into effect — altogether.
He agreed to do so late Thursday night, finding that the law violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, moments before the law would have gone into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Reeves initially got involved with these issues when he was assigned to hear the challenge to the state's ban on same-sex couples' marriages back in 2014. Roberta Kaplan, the Paul Weiss lawyer who had successfully represented Edie Windsor in her challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, also represented those plaintiffs in Mississippi. Reeves ruled the the marriage ban was unconstitutional, and later issued a permanent injunction stopping enforcement of the marriage ban.
After Bryant signed HB 1523 into law, Kaplan asked Reeves to re-open that case to consider the effect of the recusal provision on the permanent injunction entered in the marriage case. All of the other cases filed against HB 1523 eventually were consolidated to be heard by Reeves.
"HB 1523 grants special rights to citizens who hold one of three 'sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions' reflecting disapproval of lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons," Reeves wrote in the Thursday night decision. "That violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws."
Explaining his decision to stop the law from going into effect on Friday, as it had been slated to do, Reeves found that the plaintiffs had standing to sue and that the state officials sued were the appropriate parties. He also found that it was proper for the plaintiffs to bring the suit before the law went into effect.
Regarding the equal protection argument, Reeves did not mince words:
The title, text, and history of HB 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell [v. Hodges]. The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions. LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were “put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres” to symbolize their second-class status.
After further analysis of equal protection law, and the effects of HB 1523, he concluded: "The deprivation of equal protection of the laws is HB 1523’s very essence."
As to the Establishment Clause, he wrote: "The essential insight from history is that the First Amendment was originally enacted to prohibit a state from creating second-class Christians. And while the law has expanded to protect persons of other faiths, or no faith at all, the core principle of government neutrality between religious sects has remained constant through the centuries."
As to HB 1523, then, he concluded the law violated the Establishment Clause in "at least two ways."
First, Reeves wrote, "On its face, HB 1523 constitutes an official preference for certain religious tenets. If three specific beliefs are 'protected by this act,' it follows that every other religious belief a citizen holds is not protected by the act." Second, he found, "HB 1523 also violates the First Amendment because its broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens."
Because Reeves found these violations and that the other requirements for injunctive relief were met, he issued the preliminary injunction — stopping state officials from "enacting or enforcing HB 1523" late Thursday night.
On Friday, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said in a statement that he "look[s] forward to an aggressive appeal," but the state's Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, adopted a more cautious tone.
Noting that "[t]he federal court's ruling was straightforward and clear", Hood said in his statement, "Our attorneys will evaluate this decision to determine whether or not to appeal all or parts of Thursday’s ruling. ... In consideration of the individual rights of all our citizens, the state's current budget crisis and the cost of appeal, I will have to think long and hard about spending taxpayer money to appeal the case against me."