The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear challenges to Mississippi’s “license to discriminate” law, the court announced today.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last year ruled that those who brought suit against Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, did not have legal standing to challenge it because they had not actually been harmed by it, as it had yet to go into effect. It did not rule on the merits of the law. That ruling, overturning a federal district court's injunction blocking the law, allowed HB 1523, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016, to take effect in October. The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case lets the law stand. The high court rejected the case without comment, as is the usual practice.
Two suits had challenged the law, which allows broad discrimination by businesses, nonprofits, and individuals, including government employees, if they cite religious or moral beliefs that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman”; that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage”; and that “male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” It could allow discrimination against not only LGBT people – same-sex couples seeking wedding services, transgender people seeking medical procedures -- but single parents and any others who offend these beliefs.
The cases, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, were consolidated in the decisions at the trial and appeals court levels, but attorneys filed petitions for Supreme Court review separately, the Washington Blade reports. The plaintiffs in the cases are Mississippi individuals and institutions, including LGBT-affirming religious groups.
The Supreme Court’s rejection of these cases does not mean an end to challenges. Now that the law is in effect, “a new round of challenges is expected from residents who have been denied service, and the issue could come back to the Supreme Court's doorstep,” NBC News reports.
Lambda Legal, which is representing plaintiffs in the Barber case, vowed to go on fighting.
“The Supreme Court’s decision not to review this case is not an endorsement of HB 1523 or the wave of similar discriminatory laws across the country, and it does not change what the court clearly ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, and more recently in Pavan v. Smith, that same-sex couples and their families should be treated like other families in this country and not to do so is harmful and unconstitutional,” Lambda attorney Beth Littrell said in a press release.
“Twenty years ago we fought a similar battle in Colorado against an anti-LGBT law that singled out LGBT people for unequal treatment, in Romer v. Evans, and we won,” Littrell continued, referring to the Amendment 2 case. We will keep fighting in Mississippi until we overturn this harmful law, and in any state where antigay legislators pass laws to roll back LGBT civil rights. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision today leaves LGBT people in Mississippi in the cross hairs of hate and humiliation, delaying justice and equality.” She asked that anyone who suffered discrimination because of HB 1523 or feared that they would to contact the organization.
In addition to Lambda Legal, the plaintiffs in Barber v. Bryant are represented by the Mississippi Center for Justic, and attorney Robert McDuff, with Paul Smith and former U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli joining in the Supreme Court appeal. Roberta Kaplan, lead attorney in the Campaign for Southern Equality case, also said the fight would go on.
"While we are obviously disappointed that the Supreme Court denied cert in our case, the ruling below was based on standing, not the meritsm so the fight is not over," she said in a statement released by the Campaign for Southern Equality. "Every day that HB 1523 remains in effect in Mississippi, we will keep fighting to ensure that this blatantly unconstitutional law is relegated to the dustbin of history." She urged anyone who suffered discrimination under the law to contact the Campaign for Southern Equality via its website..
Other LGBT groups denounced the Supreme Court’s inaction. “This latest punt on LGBTQ rights by the nation’s highest court promotes state-stationed discrimination by upholding a law that allows hotels, ER doctors, business owners, and even pediatricians to legally deny services to hardworking LGBTQ families in Mississippi,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, in a press release. “While freedom of religion is a fundamental right, it should never give people the right to impose their belief on others and openly discriminate against others in the name of religious exemptions.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision not to review HB 1523 is a missed opportunity to swiftly strike down the nation’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ law,” said Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans. “The court’s inaction today means that LGBTQ Mississipians will continue to face harassment and discrimination,” Davis said. “HB 1523 fails to honor the tradition of religious freedom in America – instead, it allows people to use religion as a license to discriminate. The LGBTQ community remains in harm’s way every single day that this law is in effect, and we are committed to working with our legal partners to strike this draconian measure once and for all.”