Supreme Court Lets Religious Freedom Law Stand, for Now
Justices decline to review ruling that grants certain faith-based exceptions protecting the Constitution's first freedom
Monday’s Supreme Court decision not to review a Mississippi religious freedom law means government bureaucrats and other officials cannot force people with faith-driven objections to same-sex marriage to act against their own beliefs, at least for now.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in June that plaintiffs challenging the law, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, had no legal right to sue because they could not demonstrate a harm they would suffer.
By declining to review the case, the high court effectively upheld the Mississippi statute — but opponents are likely to mount a new challenge to it soon.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant praised the decision, saying, “This law was democratically enacted and is perfectly constitutional. The people of Mississippi have the right to ensure that all of our citizens are free to peacefully live and work without fear of being punished for their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The evangelical nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which was part of the legal team defending the law, praised the decision, with the group’s senior counsel, Kevin Theriot, telling LifeZette that “we think the Supreme Court did the right thing. You can’t roam the country or the state or city looking to be offended.”
Lambda Legal, which represented the plaintiffs, blasted the decision in a series of strident tweets condemning the law — widely known simply as HB 1523 — as “patently unconstitutional and unacceptable” and “profoundly un-American.”
“We think the Supreme Court did the right thing. You can’t roam the country or the state or city looking to be offended.”
“In these cases: It’s not about the product or service denied,” the organization tweeted. “It’s not about buying the cake or the house. It’s about being able to feel safe in public. It’s about having equal access to medical care in an emergency. It’s about EQUAL TREATMENT UNDER THE LAW. #HB1523Hurts.”
The law has been enormously controversial since even before Bryant signed it in April 2016 and prompted several states and municipalities to take largely symbolic stands against it by banning official government travel to the Magnolia State.
Supporters of the law contend opponents mischaracterize it.
The law has six major sections. It:
1.) Prohibits the state government from taking any discriminatory action against a religious organization based on its refusal to recognize same-sex marriage, or refusal to hire or rent to people whose conduct violates the organization’s beliefs.
2.) Prohibits the state government from taking any discriminatory action against a religious organization that excludes people from foster or adoption programs based on a violation of its religious beliefs when it comes to same-sex marriage.
3.) Prohibits the state government from taking any discriminatory action against someone who does not provide counseling, fertility or surgeries related to gender-reassignment operations. The law makes clear that the religious exemption does not apply to other types of medical treatment.
4.) Prohibits the state government from taking any discriminatory action against someone who refuses to provide goods or services to a same-sex couple as part of a wedding ceremony.
5.) Protects the right of business owners to establish gender-specific standards for employees and customers using facilities such as restrooms, spas, locker rooms and baths.
6.) Protects the speech rights of state employees to express opposition to same-sex marriage. It also allows clerks to recuse themselves from signing marriage licenses of same-sex couples as long as that employee takes all necessary steps to ensure that another worker performs the duty without delaying the marrying couple.
A federal judge initially had blocked the law from taking effect, but the appeals court reversed that decision.
Theriot of ADF said protecting people from exercising their religious beliefs should be covered by the First Amendment. But he added that the state statute makes those freedoms even more secure.
Theriot said no one should want to force a doctor to perform a medical procedure outside of his training or comfort. Similarly, he said a couple seeking a marriage license is not harmed if one worker in the clerk’s office passes the duty to another, as happened several years ago in Kentucky.
“It would only matter if you wanted to impose your views on somebody else,” he said.