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Federal judge strikes Mississippi ‘religious freedom’ law

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A federal judge Friday struck down a Mississippi law that would have permitted discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on religious grounds, an hour before it was scheduled to go into effect.

In April, Gov. Phil Bryant (R), signed House Bill 1523, the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

Numerous states have since passed legislation designed to solidify protections for conservatives who object to the law on religious grounds. These laws have been met with staunch opposition from civil rights advocates who say they violate the constitutional rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. This case, however, approached the issue from a different angle.

In his ruling, US District Judge Carlton Reeves noted a clear distinction between religious freedoms and religion-based laws.

“The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” Reeves wrote in his 60-page ruling. The law “does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”

The law, pushed by ultra-conservative Republicans and so-called Christian groups like the Family Research Council, would have enshrined three beliefs into law: marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, sexual relations can only occur within this marriage, and that a person’s gender is decided at birth and can’t be changed.

The law would have granted religious organizations the right to lawfully deny marriages to same-sex couples; jobs, counseling, foster care services, or adoption for LGBT people; bathroom restrictions and dress codes for transgender people; and the denial of medical treatment related to gender transitioning.

“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,” Reeves wrote. “HB 1523 favors Southern Baptist over Unitarian doctrine, Catholic over Episcopalian doctrine, and Orthodox Judaism over Reform Judaism doctrine, to list just a few examples.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) hopes for an appeal in the case.

“If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice religion, then all Mississippians are denied their 1st Amendment rights,” Reeves wrote in a statement. “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.”

Mississippi already has a traditional religious freedom act to protect individuals who feel like their beliefs are being hindered by law. Thus employees are still permitted to refuse service to LGBT customers on religious grounds.

Judge Reeves wrote that politicians have over-reacted to the Obergefell ruling

“In physics, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. In politics, every action has its predictable overreaction,” writes Judge Reeves. “And now Obergefell has led to HB 1523. The next chapter of this back-and-forth has begun.”

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