Supporters of Mississippi anti-LGBTQ bill take fight to a higher court

FILE - Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has vowed to "aggressively" defend the recently overturned law.

FILE - Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has vowed to "aggressively" defend the recently overturned law. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Religious supporters of a Mississippi law dealing with objections to same-sex marriage say they hope a higher court will overturn the federal judge who stopped the law from taking effect.

Those who oppose the measure are applauding the action by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to block House Bill 1523 , saying proponents of the law are misusing religion to support it.

Ron Matis, political liaison for the Mississippi District of the United Pentecostal Church, said he wasn’t surprised at Reeves’s ruling, citing Reeves’ earlier decision to overturn Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriages.

Matis said his church is looking for a better outcome at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We anticipated that was going to be the case,” Matis said Friday. “Now we just hope that the governor is going to take the next step of appealing to the 5th Circuit.”

Gov. Phil Bryant has said he plans an “aggressive” appeal.

Pentecostals were among the top supporters of the measure, and Matis pointed to the city of Jackson’s adoption of a nondiscrimination ordinance last month as one example of why he thinks the law is needed.

The ordinance bans most businesses that offer accommodations, goods or services to the public from discriminating on the basis sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or religion. If any incidents reported to the city can’t be resolved, it authorizes the city to fine the business $500 for a first violation and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

House Bill 1523 would have overridden portions of Jackson’s ordinance, the first such city law in the state that protected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and prevented other cities and counties from adopting similar measures.

The Jackson ordinance exempts religious groups performing religious activities, but Matis and others say that exception isn’t broad enough to protect religious people who don’t work directly for their church.

The law sought to protect three beliefs: That marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sex should only take place in such a marriage and that a person’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.

It would allow clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and would protect merchants who refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It could affect adoptions and foster care, business practices and school bathroom policies.

“We don’t believe this bill is about discrimination,” Matis said. “In fact we believe this bill protects people of faith from discrimination by the government, defining what the government would and wouldn’t get involved in.”

Polling has repeatedly shown that a larger share of Mississippians identify as “very religious” than in any other state. Bryant, speaking in May when accepting a religious freedom award for signing HB 1523 from the Family Research Council, said that he was willing to face up to scorn from the “secular, progressive world” to defend religious freedoms

“They don’t know that Christians have been persecuted throughout the ages,” Bryant, who is United Methodist, told the group. “They don’t know that if it takes crucifixion, we will stand in line before abandoning our faith and our belief in our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Christian churches including Southern Baptists and Catholics support the law. But some religious groups oppose it, including Episcopalians and Jews.

Rabbi Jeremy Simons director of rabbinic services at the Southern Institute for Jewish Life, was a plaintiff in one of the cases challenging the law.

“This case is not about religion versus secular citizens of this state. This case is about bigotry masquerading and perverting religion,” Simons said at a news conference outside the Capitol Friday.

Simons said Reform Judaism has a history of accepting and including LGBT people.

“Thirty-six times in the Bible, it says ‘You shall not oppress the stranger.’ That’s more than any other commandment by far,” Simons said. “A stranger is not simply someone who doesn’t live in your community. A stranger is anyone who is a minority, anyone who is vulnerable, anybody who could be the victim of oppression.”

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Associated Press Writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.

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