An engaged same-sex couple in Mississippi today filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the implementation of the state’s sweeping anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law before it takes effect July 1.
The federal complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, contends that Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act, also known as House Bill 1523, violates the promises of equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The named plaintiffs are Nykola Alford and Stephen Thomas (pictured above), who have been engaged for nearly two years, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union and its Mississippi chapter, which is representing the couple.
“When HB 1523 passed, it was heartbreaking because it takes away our chance to finally be treated equally,” the couple said in the ACLU’s statement. “At a time when we’re supposed to be excited as a couple engaged to be married, this law permits discrimination against us simply because of who we are. This is not the Mississippi we’re proud to call home. We’re hopeful others will come to realize this and not allow this harmful measure to become law.”
The lawsuit names Judy Moulder, in her official capacity as the Mississippi State Registrar of Vital Records, as the lone defendant.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the first-of-its-kind law in April, making it legal for businesses, individuals, and religiously affiliated organizations to deny service to LGBT people, single mothers, and others who somehow offend the individual’s “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” The law also directly targets transgender residents, effectively claiming that one’s sex assigned at birth is immutable, and will be the only gender recognized by the state, regardless of a citizen’s gender identity.
Mississippi already had a strong Religious Freedom Restoration Act, considered by some to be the first true "license to discriminate" law, enacted in 2014. Bryant has a history of opposing LGBT rights. Last year he argued — unsuccessfully — that individual states should be able to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. He has also defended the state's ban on adoption by same-sex couples.
The ACLU contends that HB 1523’s provisions allowing for-profit businesses open to the public to deny service to legally married same-sex couples flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling last June in Obergefell v. Hodges, which confirmed that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide.
“We’re stepping up to fight this sweeping anti-LGBT and unconstitutional law that authorizes discrimination against gay and transgender people,” said ACLU staff attorney Josh Block in a statement. “HB 1523 has no rightful place in Mississippi or in our history books, and we’re hopeful this lawsuit can stop as much of it as possible before it goes into effect. We won’t rest until every last piece of this law is struck down and all LGBT people in Mississippi have equal justice under the law.”
The law has been roundly criticized by LGBT groups, who say it is one of the broadest, and therefore most dangerous, anti-LGBT laws in the country. Business leaders in the tech, hospitality, and automotive industries have called for the law’s repeal.
The White House and other federal agencies are reportedly looking at whether Mississippi’s law violates existing civil rights protections, as the federal Department of Justice today affirmed a similar law in North Carolina does. If the Mississippi law runs afoul of federal law, the state could lose millions in federal funding for education, employment, and public services.