Mississippians take action against anti-LGBTQ ‘religious exemption’ bill

Mississippians protest a bill providing specific religious exemptions to LGBTQ equality on April 4, 2016.

Mississippians protest a bill providing specific religious exemptions to LGBTQ equality on April 4, 2016. Unity Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi is the only state to enact a law listing specific religious beliefs to be protected in reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage, a professor testified Thursday in federal court.

UCLA law professor Douglas NeJaime testified on behalf of plaintiffs who filed two lawsuits seeking to block Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, a religious-exemptions bill, from becoming law July 1.

The Mississippi law would protect three beliefs: That marriage should only be between a man and a woman, that sex should only take place within such a marriage and that a person’s gender is set at birth. It would allow clerks to cite those beliefs to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples. In addition to marriage licenses, it could affect adoptions, business practices and school bathroom policies.

NeJaime said more than 100 bills were filed in more than 20 state legislatures across the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling nearly a year ago that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

He said two bills were signed into law by governors — the one in Mississippi and the “Pastor Protection Act” in Florida, which says clergy, churches, religious schools and other religious organizations cannot be required to marry people or allow their facilities to be used for marriage celebrations that violate “a sincerely held religious belief.”

In response to an attorney’s question, NeJaime said a North Carolina law dealing with transgender people and public bathrooms does not fall into the category of religious-exemptions bills filed in response to the gay marriage ruling.

NeJaime said the Mississippi legislation was “both narrower and broader” than bills considered in other states — narrower in that it lists specific religious beliefs that would be protected, and broader in that it applies to government employees, religious groups and private business people.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves heard several hours of testimony Thursday and will hear more Friday in the challenge to the Mississippi legislation, but he hasn’t said when he will rule on plaintiffs’ request to block it. Regardless of whether he puts the law on hold or lets it take effect, attorneys have already said the losing side is likely to appeal his decision.

Attorneys trying to block the law argued it violates the Constitution by preferring certain religious beliefs and by creating unequal treatment of gay people.

State attorneys argued it provides reasonable protection for sincere beliefs.

The Rev. Susan Hrostowski, who lives in Hattiesburg and is vicar of an Episcopal church in Collins, is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. She testified Thursday that she’s trying to block the bill from becoming law because she believes it endorses a set of religious beliefs and those run counter to her belief that marriage should be open to any loving, committed couple.

“The state wants to hold certain people — and that would be gay men, lesbians and transgender people — to be less worthy, to have less dignity,” Hrostowski said.

She and her wife were plaintiffs in a federal suit filed last year to challenge a 2000 Mississippi law that banned same-sex couples from adopting children. They won the lawsuit this spring, just about the time Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523. Hrostowski said the bill signing dampened her joy over finally being able to adopt the 16-year-old son her wife had conceived through artificial insemination — a child Hrostowski had helped raise since birth.

Hrostowski used her love of dogs to describe the feeling of making gains and then facing other challenges with gay rights.

“You have this feeling like you’re a dog on a long leash,” she said. “You’re running and you’re running, and you think you’re free and you get jerked back.”

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