Mississippi attorneys: LGBT law protects religious rights

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — State attorneys say a new Mississippi law that will let clerks recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples is a reasonable accommodation for people who believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

The attorneys representing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and other officials filed a response Friday to a lawsuit that the Mississippi Center for Justice filed June 3 for a diverse group of gay and straight plaintiffs.

It is one of four federal lawsuits seeking to block House Bill 1523 from becoming law July 1.

The suits say the measure is unconstitutional. They contend it denies equal protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They also say it favors some religious beliefs over others.

In their response to the Mississippi Center for Justice lawsuit, Paul E. Barnes of the attorney general’s office and Tommy D. Goodwin, representing the governor and the director of the state Department of Human Services, wrote that the bill “is constitutional as a reasonable accommodation for the protection of people holding moral and religious beliefs — even though plaintiffs find those beliefs offensive or repugnant.”

“HB 1523 does not bar plaintiffs from getting married, exercising any right associated with marriage, or holding or living by whatever moral or religious beliefs they see fit,” the state attorneys wrote. “By its terms, HB 1523 is an accommodation law intended to convey the strongest protection for the ‘free exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions’ permitted by the state and federal constitutions.”

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves is scheduled to hold hearings Monday and Thursday on the lawsuits.

The law would provide protection for people with three religious beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sexual relations should only take place inside such a marriage and that a person’s “immutable biological sex” is determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.

It would allow clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Although it specifies that a clerk must make other arrangements for such a license to be issued, lawmakers didn’t say during debates what would happen if every employee in a clerk’s office in a particular county declined to issue licenses.

In addition to marriage licenses, the law could affect adoptions, business practices and school bathroom policies.

The hearing Monday is for Reeves to consider whether to let Campaign for Southern Equality to challenge House Bill 1523 by reopening its 2014 federal lawsuit in which he overturned Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage. Reeves put the marriage ruling on hold while the state appealed, and the Supreme Court handed down its marriage ruling months later in an Ohio case.

The hearing Thursday is for Reeves to hear arguments in the Mississippi Center for Justice lawsuit and a separate suit filed June 10 by Campaign for Southern Equality and an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Susan Hrostowski.

On May 9, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of a gay couple from Meridian.

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