Judge Nixes Religious Freedom in Mississippi

News: Government
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 29, 2016   

Clerks must issue licenses to same-sex couples

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JACKSON, Miss. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Mississippi clerks must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples regardless of clerks' religious beliefs, a federal judge has ruled.

Monday, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that circuit clerks cannot cite their religious beliefs to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

The ruling nullifies House Bill 1523, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, which safeguarded the right of people and religious organizations not to participate in gay weddings. Mississippi's recently signed bill was due to take effect Friday.

House Bill 1523 was Mississippi's response to last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized "gay marriage." Reeves had previously used the decision by the High Court to overturn Mississippi's ban on such "marriages."

Challenges to Mississippi's bill were filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) claiming the law would treat gay couples unfairly.

In his ruling Monday, Reeves decreed that circuit clerks must treat all couples, gay or straight, equally. He ordered that all 82 circuit clerks be informed of this requirement. In his decision Judge Reeves notes,

Mississippi's elected officials may disagree with Obergefell, of course, and may express that disagreement as they see fit — by advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision, for example. But the marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew after every legislative session.

Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves sharply criticized the decision. "If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice their religion," he argued, "then all Mississippians are denied their First Amendment rights. I hope the state's attorneys will quickly appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of all Mississippians."

House Bill 1523 further stipulated that people and organizations have the right to hire personnel according to their religious beliefs and to determine sex-specific rules regarding attire and restroom use.

Lawsuits filed in May by the ACLU and the CSE are still challenging the law on these issues, which are pending before the district court. Reeves' ruling could affect schools' bathroom policies for transgender students.


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