JACKSON, Miss. – Advocates of same-sex marriage are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a new Mississippi law that lets government workers and business people cite their own religious objections to refuse services to LGBT people.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was filed within hours of when the law took effect Tuesday. Legal experts say it’s the broadest religious-objections law enacted by any state since the nation’s high court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
The law was championed and signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016, but the law had been on hold amid federal court challenges. It protects three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, sex should only take place in such a marriage, and a person’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.
In an appeal Tuesday to the Supreme Court, attorneys for some of the gay and straight Mississippi residents who sued the state wrote that the law “is a transparent attempt to undermine the equal dignity of LGBT citizens established in this court’s decisions,” starting with a 2003 decision that struck down a Texas law against sodomy and continuing to the 2015 decision that effectively legalized same-sex marriage.
“It is an equally transparent attempt to endorse particular religious beliefs as state policy,” wrote the attorneys from the national gay-rights group Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Mississippi Center for Justice.
It was not immediately clear whether the Supreme Court would consider the appeal.
The Mississippi law allows clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and protects merchants who refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It could affect adoptions and foster care, business practices and school bathroom policies. Opponents say it also allows pharmacies to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions for unmarried women.
The Supreme Court will hear a case this term about a Colorado baker who said he should not be forced to violate his own religious beliefs by making a cake for a married same-sex couple. President Donald Trump’s administration is supporting the baker, who disagreed with a Colorado law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Mississippi law affects actions by government workers and people working for private businesses.
An Arizona-based Christian group, Alliance Defending Freedom, helped write the Mississippi law. Bryant said Oct. 2 that “this law was democratically enacted and is perfectly constitutional.”
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the Mississippi law from taking effect in July 2016, ruling it unconstitutionally establishes preferred beliefs and creates unequal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
A panel of judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the hold on the law June 22, saying people who sued the state had failed to show they would be harmed. Plaintiffs asked the whole appeals court to reverse that decision, but the court said Sept. 29 that it would not do so. That opened the way for the law to take effect in Mississippi.
The 5th Circuit handles appeals from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and is considered one of the most conservative federal appeals courts. Opponents of the law wrote in their appeal to the Supreme Court that the 5th Circuit decision conflicts with decisions from other federal appeals courts and “it has staggering implications.”
“Under the (appeals) court’s reasoning, a state could enact a statute establishing Christianity – or any other religion – as the official religion of the state, and no plaintiff would have standing to challenge that statute,” the opponents’ attorneys wrote. They noted that “numerous” bills similar to Mississippi’s have been introduced in other state legislatures.
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