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Mississippi Defies the 1st Amendment with “Freedom of Conscience” Law

Posted on: April 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

On April 5 Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law H.B. 1523, a measure that received overwhelming approval in both houses of the state legislature.  Titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act,” the law was clearly intended to encourage businesses and individuals in the state to discriminate against same-sex couples, LGBT people, and even sexually-active unmarried heterosexuals.

Despite the broad wording of its title, the measure does not on its face protect freedom of conscience in general.  Instead, in Section 2, the legislature stated that “the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”  The first of these, of course, defies the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  The second defies the 2003 ruling, Lawrence v. Texas, which held that the state may not penalize sexual relations between consenting adults in private, regardless of their sex.  And the third defies the general medical consensus that gender identity is a human characteristic that exists apart from biological sex in terms of anatomy and genetics.

The law does not specify how it will be determined that somebody sincerely holds these beliefs or is merely asserting them opportunistically to avoid liability for mistreating somebody.

In effect, Mississippi has moved to protect from any adverse consequences at the hands of the state anybody who sincerely believes that a person born with a penis can only be considered a man for the rest of their life, and similarly a person born with a vagina can only be considered a woman.  This takes things one step further than North Carolina, which provided in its notorious H.B. 2, enacted in March, that “biological sex” means the sex indicated on a person’s birth certificate.  Since North Carolina will allow people to obtain new birth certificates consistent with their gender identity upon medical certification of surgical transition, that state evidently does not officially believe that sex is quite so “immutable.”

The new law goes on to protect people who act on these beliefs in various ways.  For example, religious organizations and clergy can refuse to have anything to do with same-sex marriages, including refusing to provide facilities or services in connection with same-sex marriage or to married same-sex couples.  Businesses can refuse to provide their goods or services or accommodations to same-sex couples, and can exclude transgender people from the use of single-sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Nobody can be subjected to loss of their tax-exempt status or denial of government contracts or benefits because they have these “protected” beliefs.  People who spout anti-LGBT rhetoric will be protected from adverse consequences as well.  They can’t be fired from government jobs for articulating such beliefs, for example.

Government employees whose jobs involve authorizing or licensing marriages can seek “recusal from authorizing or licensing lawful marriages based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” as defined in the statute, provided they send a written notice of such recusal to the State Registrar of Vital Records. They may not suffer any adverse consequences for recusing themselves, but “the person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  Apparently, then, the person recusing themselves is responsible for being sure that somebody else who is willing to perform their duty is available to do so when the service is needed.  This provision is undoubtedly intended to shield the state from liability for refusing to provide a service that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to receive.

The law also relieves people who officiate at weddings from any obligation to perform ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs about the invalidity of same-sex marriages. This presumably would include refusing to officiate if one of the prospective spouses is transgender and that raises religious or moral objections for the officiant because of their lack of belief in the reality of the individual’s gender identity.  OF course, such protection is completely superfluous, since nobody would seriously contend that the government can compel clergy to perform services.

The “discriminatory action” that the government is not allowed to take against people holding and acting on these beliefs goes far beyond taxes to encompass any state benefit, license, certification, accreditation, custody award or agreement, and on and on and on. The list seems to anticipate the variety of cases that have arisen around the country over the past few years in which people have suffered adverse consequences because of their religious objections to homosexuality or same-sex marriage.  For example, some people have been expelled from graduate counseling programs for refusing to provide non-judgmental counseling to gay clients, and such expulsions would clearly be prohibited by this law.  The law would also forbid denying government employment to anybody because of these sincerely held religious beliefs by the prospective employee.

The practical effect is to say that married same-sex couples can be denied a host of benefits and entitlements under a variety of programs, in blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell. Ironically, this law was enacted just days after a federal district judge in Mississippi ruled that the state’s ban on adoption of children by same-sex married couples violates the 14th Amendment in light of Obergefell.   And the law erects a structure somewhat akin to apartheid around same-sex marriages.

The measure seems clearly unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, since it exalts and privileges particular religious beliefs and those who hold them for “special rights.”  On the other hand, some of the law is “merely” symbolic for several reasons.  First, since neither Mississippi nor any of its political subdivisions expressly outlaws discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations because of sexual orientation or gender identity, people or businesses acting to deny goods, services or accommodations to LGBT people and same-sex couples could do so freely without any consequence under state law before this measure was enacted.  Second, due to the Supremacy Clause of the federal constitution, federal constitutional and statutory rights take priority over state law.

Thus, for example, under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education, educational institutions in Mississippi that receive federal money (which would be just about all of them) may not discriminate against transgender individuals because of their gender identity, and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, employers in Mississippi may not discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And, of course, as a federal court ruled days earlier, state policies denying equal rights and benefits to married same-sex couples can be challenged under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The main question now is who will file for the first lawsuit to challenge this travesty. Robbie Kaplan, the fearless slayer of DOMA, victorious advocate in the Mississippi marriage equality lawsuit, and representative of the plaintiffs in the same-sex parents adoption case, would be our candidate.