Mississippi Law Blocked; Roberta Kaplan Wins Again

Roberta Kaplan

Mississippi legislators had passed one the most pointed religious exemptions laws, and minutes before it was set to go into effect on Friday, a federal judge struck down the law.

The same judge had already struck down a single provision of the law earlier this week, saying it was designed only to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. That provision would’ve let county clerks opt out of granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Now District Court Judge Carlton Reeves is striking down the full religious exemptions law, House Bill 1523, ruling that it “does not honor the tradition of religious freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”

If it had gone forward as planned on Friday, business owners would’ve been legally permitted to deny service to anyone — including, obviously, LGBT people — if they cited a religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman or that sex is reserved for marriage or that whatever gender is assigned at birth must last for a lifetime.

In HB 1523, Mississippi lawmakers had taken the unusual route of naming the specific beliefs they granted government protection. And that kind of innovation on “religious freedom” bills being pushed by Republicans across the country is what makes them hard to challenge collectively, as opposed to having to fight them one by one in legal battles.

This challenge was brought by the Campaign for Southern Equality and led by Roberta Kaplan, the well-known civil rights attorney from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Kaplan is best known for taking Edie Windsor's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional. But she’s since focused her attention on Mississippi, with its long history of homophobia, and where she first forced the state to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, then challenged the notion thar clerks could opt out of granting marriage licenses, and now has won on the question of whether religious freedom means not having to serve your LGBT customers. 

“As Thomas Jefferson wrote more than 200 years ago, one of the founding principles of our nation is that civil rights should have no dependence on anyone’s religious opinions,” Kaplan said in a statement distributed by the Campaign for Southern Equality, for which she served as lead counsel. “This is so because Americans today as well as in the past fiercely disagree over matters of religious belief. Indeed, American religious organizations today are almost evenly divided on the question of whether the essential dignity of gay men and lesbians requires them to be allowed to marry. In striking down HB 1523, the Court enforced the fundamental constitutional principle that the government cannot establish any religion.”

That’s exactly how the judge interpreted the law as well.

“The United States Supreme Court has spoken clearly on the constitutional principles at stake,” Reeves wrote in the ruling, citing Epperson v. Arkansas. “Under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, a state ‘may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another.’” 

Reeves said the Mississippi law “grants special rights to citizens who hold one of three ‘sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions’ reflecting disapproval of lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons. That violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws.”

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