Religious liberty law in Miss. upheld on appeal

by Diana Chandler, posted Friday, June 23, 2017 (7 months ago)

NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- A law allowing Mississippians to refuse a variety of business transactions violating their religious beliefs was allowed to take effect by a federal appeals court June 22, but the court did not address the law's constitutionality.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned an injunction that had barred the law's enforcement, the court said, because the plaintiffs had no legal standing to oppose the measure. The court also acknowledged that other cases might be filed that would warrant a ruling on the law's constitutionality.

In the cases at hand, (Rims) Barber v. Bryant (Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant) and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, plaintiffs challenged the legality of the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, referred to as HB 1523. The law allows citizens to stand on religious beliefs in refusing to perform business transactions related to such issues as gay marriage and transgenderism.

"The exercise of judicial power, which can so profoundly affect the lives, liberty, and property of those to whom it extends, is ... restricted to litigants who can show 'injury in fact' resulting from the action which they seek to have the court adjudicate," the three-judge panel said in its decision. "The plaintiffs have not shown an injury-in-fact caused by HB 1523 that would empower the district court or this court to rule on its constitutionality.

"We do not foreclose the possibility that a future plaintiff may be able to show clear injury-in-fact that satisfies the 'irreducible constitutional minimum of standing' ... but the federal courts must withhold judgment unless and until that plaintiff comes forward."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded to the ruling with a promise to pursue other cases against the religious liberty law.

"We are ready to move forward with our case filed on behalf of ACLU members Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, who are planning to marry in Mississippi in the near future," Jennifer Riley Collins, executive director of ACLU of Mississippi, said in a June 22 press release. "That case was put on hold until the court of appeals ruled. We will continue to proceed on behalf of Nykolas and Stephen to protect them, and other same-sex couples from this harmful and discriminatory law.

Bryant's co-counsel in the cases, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), still applauded the court's ruling.

"Good laws like Mississippi's protect freedom and harm no one," ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in a June 22 press release. "The court did the right thing in finding that those who have challenged this law haven't been harmed and, therefore, can't try to take the law down.

"The sole purpose of this law is to ensure that Mississippians don't live in fear of losing their careers or their businesses simply for affirming marriage as a husband-wife union," Theriot said. "Those who filed suit have not and will not be harmed, but want to restrict freedom and impose their beliefs on others by ensuring dissenters are left open to the government discrimination that has already occurred in states without protective laws like this one."

Mississippi passed the law after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in its 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

The state law covers a host of situations that might compromise one's religious conscience. 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 law was originally scheduled to take effect July 1, 2016.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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