Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Groups step up fight against religious beliefs law

Published:Sunday | December 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) :

Gay rights groups and others are asking a federal appeals court to keep blocking a Mississippi law that would let merchants and government employees cite religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples.

United States District Judge Carlton Reeves halted the law before it could take effect on July 1, ruling it unconstitutionally establishes preferred beliefs and creates unequal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The law, championed and signed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant, sought to protect three beliefs: 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.

Bryant filed papers in late October asking the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the hold to let the law take effect.

Gay and straight plaintiffs who sued the state filed written arguments last Friday with the 5th Circuit, saying that the law "acts as an unconstitutional religious 'gerrymander' by putting its thumb on the scales to give special protections to one side in that religious debate and not the other".

The law which started as House Bill 1523 would have allowed clerks to cite religious objections to recluse themselves from issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples and would have protected merchants who refuse services to LGBT people. It could have affected adoptions and foster care, business practices and school-bathroom policies.

The plaintiffs' appeal gives examples of what the law could allow: a restaurant manager refusing to seat a lesbian couple celebrating an anniversary dinner; a jewellery store clerk refusing to sell an engagement ring to a straight couple if he believed that the couple had previously had sex; social workers being unable to protect a child whose foster parents punished the child for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; public school counsellors refusing to help LGBT students.

"This provision of HB 1523 is arguably the most alarming since it would allow a school psychologist or guidance counsellor to cease therapy with a depressed, suicidal high school student who divulges to the counsellor that he thinks he might be gay," says the appeal filed by attorney Roberta Kaplan.

More than 100 bills were filed in more than 20 state legislatures across the nation in response to the June 2015 US Supreme Court ruling legalising gay marriage, UCLA law professor Douglas NeJaime testified in June during a federal-district court hearing on the Mississippi law. NeJaime said Mississippi was the only state to enact a law listing specific beliefs to be protected.

The Mississippi law was supported by Baptist and Pentecostal groups, and the Washington-based Family Research Council gave Bryant an award for signing it. Opponents protested outside the Governor's Mansion in Jackson and executives of several large companies, including Coca-Cola Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., called the law as discriminatory and said legislators should repeal it. Multiple lawsuits from gay rights supporters sought to overturn the law.