The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit May 9 challenging Mississippi’s religious freedom law, which critics say could be used to discriminate against gays.
“The ACLU stands firmly against discrimination in all forms,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of ACLU of Mississippi. “All citizens deserve the right to be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of an engaged same-sex couple planning to wed within two or three years, targets a provision of HB 1523 allowing workers in county clerk offices to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on the religious or moral conviction that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
The lawsuit says the opt-out provision — which is not available to government employees with moral objections, for example, to marriage after a divorce or interfaith marriages — in effect allows the state to maintain a “no same-sex couples allowed” list of government officials who will provide the same licenses to every couple coming into their office except those of the same-sex.
The lawsuit says the bill, signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant April 5 and set to go into effect this July, violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by imposing different terms and conditions for opposite-sex and same-sex marriages. By creating “separate and unequal laws applying only to the marriage of same-sex couples,” ACLU lawyers say, HB 1523 “imposes a disadvantage, a separate status and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi.”
That stigma lingers long after the couple obtains a marriage license, the lawsuit alleges, by establishing “a comprehensive legal regime” allowing same-sex couples to be denied services offered freely to other couples by business owners, adoption agencies and providers of counseling or fertility services. It claims discrimination could be passed on to children, if a school guidance counselor tells a son or daughter their parent’s marriage is an “abomination” or refuses to counsel the child at all.
“Through these sweeping exclusions, HB 1325 subjects same-sex married couples in Mississippi to a lifetime of potentially humiliating denials of ordinary assistance and places a badge of inferiority upon their marriages each time they celebrate one of the ordinary incidents of family life,” the lawsuit claims.
The Mississippi law is one of several bills labeled as protecting religious liberty introduced across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that states cannot bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms afforded to heterosexuals.
Its sponsor, House Speaker Philip Gunn, is a Southern Baptist layman who recently completed service as chairman of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary board of trustees. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention supported the bill, calling it “an exemplary model for public policy.” A group of Mississippi pastors active in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, meanwhile, urged the governor to veto the measure.
“Any law that threatens the livelihood of real people is bad public policy,” said Stan Wilson, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss. “More to the point, as a pastor, I believe it is a failure of Christian witness.”