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It was an eleventh-hour move.
Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern Mississippi U.S. District Court had initially refused to block the state’s controversial LGBT discrimination bill H.B. 1523, even after the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against the state.
But on Thursday night, minutes before the law was to take effect, Reeves deemed the law unconstitutional. In a 60-page ruling, Reeves wrote that the Mississippi Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act “violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws.”
H.B. 1523 would have allowed Mississippi businesses to refuse service to LGBT people based on three specific religious beliefs: that only men and women should marry one another, that same-sex intercourse is wrong, and that gender is only what one was assigned at birth. The law would also have allowed court clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In his ruling against the law, Reeves said that it not only violated constitutionally protected equal rights for all citizens, it also privileged some religions over others. Noting that not every religion discriminates against the LGBT community, Reeves said the law favors “Southern Baptist over Unitarian doctrine, Catholic over Episcopalian doctrine, and Orthodox Judaism over Reform Judaism doctrine,” violating the constitutional guarantee of religious neutrality.
“One religious view of marriage should not preclude all others or federal law,” said ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins in a statement on Friday.
“H.B. 1523, on its face, created a separate system for our clients, Nykolas and Stephen, and for all LGBT Mississippians,” said Riley-Collins in reference to the lawsuit on behalf of a couple that has been engaged for two years. “That is discrimination, plain and simple.”
A number of separate lawsuits were filed in attempts to block H.B. 1523 from taking effect in Mississippi. One of those lawsuits was brought by religious leaders who stated that the ‘religious freedom’ act would have provided outsize rights to some religious groups in direct opposition to others.
Jackson Episcopal priest Rev. Susan Hrostowski, an out lesbian who also challenged the state’s adoption ban earlier in the year, was a plaintiff in the religious lawsuit.
“The reason for my part in the lawsuit is the Legislature and the governor are holding up this arch-conservative, fundamentalist Christian idea as superior to any other religious perspective,” Hrostowski told the Jackson Free Press in early June. “And secondly, it is extremely clear if you listen to the Senate debate before their vote, this law pertains to a specific population, and that’s unconstitutional.”
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.