Mississippi religious liberty law challenged

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Mississippi is now headed to federal court over its effort to protect the religious freedom of individuals who object to same-sex marriage and restroom use based on gender identity.

Two organizations -- the American Civil Liberties Union and the Campaign for Southern Equality -- challenged the state's Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act May 9 and 10, respectively.

Filing its suit on behalf of a same-sex couple, the ACLU described Mississippi's new law as unconstitutionally discriminatory and asked a federal judge to block enforcement of the measure before it takes effect July 1.

When Gov. Phil Bryant signed the legislation in early April, Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore commended the measure, saying it "doesn't discriminate against anyone or imperil civil liberties."

"What it actually does is prohibit the government from taking sides in a culture war and discriminate against those with religious convictions," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "I'm thankful for Mississippi's example, and pray that conscience freedom would become an even greater priority for governors and legislatures across the country."

Among its provisions, the Mississippi law:

-- Forbids state government from taking "any discriminatory action" against an individual who declines on religious grounds to provide photography, floral arrangements or other wedding services for a same-sex marriage ceremony.

-- Bars the state from discriminating against any person who establishes, on religious grounds, "sex-specific standards or policies" concerning access to restrooms or locker rooms.

-- Permits any person authorized to license or perform marriages to seek recusal from same-sex weddings on religious grounds. At the same time, the bill requires state representatives "to ensure that the performance or solemnization of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal."

-- Prohibits state government discrimination against adoption agencies that decline, based on religious convictions, to allow same-sex couples to adopt.

-- Bans the state from discriminating against religious organizations that decline to solemnize same-sex marriages or make employment decisions based on religious beliefs concerning marriage.

The lawsuits now put Mississippi in the company of North Carolina as legal battlegrounds involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

North Carolina's governor and legislature both filed suit May 9 in response to the Department of Justice's (DOJ) threat to sue and to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid if the state did not reverse course on the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law requires individuals in government buildings to use the restrooms of the sex on their birth certificates rather than the gender with which they identify. The DOJ followed through the same day with a lawsuit against the state.

Mississippi and North Carolina continue to be the targets of travel bans by some government officials. Baltimore's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, announced Tuesday (May 10) a prohibition on non-essential travel by the city's employees to both states.

Other cities that have issued such bans to both states include Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. States that have banned travel to the states are Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington.

In North Carolina, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit Tuesday (May 10) on behalf of students at the state's public schools and universities against the DOJ and Department of Education.

Both agencies are "bullying schools and universities," ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a written statement.

"The [Obama] administration shouldn't condition the ability of women to receive an education on their willingness to shower with members of the opposite sex," Tedesco said. "The agencies must stop using falsehoods about what federal law requires to threaten student access to educational opportunities and financial assistance."

The DOJ has said federal law can be interpreted to prohibit gender identity discrimination.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, with reporting by David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.
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