The U.S. Supreme Court has left in effect a Mississippi law that protects the religious freedom of those who object to participating in a gay marriage or sex-reassignment surgery.
The justices announced Jan. 8 without comment they would not review a lower court decision that permitted the law to go into effect. In June, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled those who sued did not have a legal basis – known as “standing” – to challenge the law. As a result, the appeals court lifted a federal judge’s injunction that had prevented the law from taking effect.
Religious freedom advocates applauded the high court’s action.
“Laws, like the one at question in Mississippi, seek to uphold America’s most important freedom,” said Travis Wussow, general counsel and vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“The freedom of religion is what makes ours a country where neighbors of various beliefs and backgrounds can live peacefully with one another,” Wussow told Baptist Press in written comments. “Our freedom to live according to our deeply held beliefs is a freedom that must always be protected.”
Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said in a written statement, “Good laws like Mississippi’s protect freedom and harm no one.”
ADF, which helped represent the state in the case, is “pleased that the Supreme Court declined to take up these baseless challenges, which misrepresented the law’s sole purpose of ensuring that Mississippians don’t live in fear of losing their careers or their businesses simply for affirming marriage as a husband-wife union,” Theriot said.
Enacted in April 2016, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act specifies it guards the following “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions”:
- “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
- “Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage;
- “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
Among its provisions, the bill:
- Prohibits state government from taking “any discriminatory action” against an individual who refuses on religious grounds to provide photography, floral arrangements or other wedding services for a same-sex marriage ceremony.
- Bars the state from discriminating against any person who establishes, on religious grounds, “sex-specific standards or policies” concerning access to restrooms or locker rooms.
- Forbids state discrimination against a person who declines to take part in sex-reassignment surgery or gender transitioning.
- Allows any person authorized to license or perform marriages to seek recusal from same-sex weddings on religious grounds. At the same time, the bill requires state representatives “to ensure that the performance or solemnization of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”
- Forbids the state from discriminating against adoption agencies that decline, based on religious convictions, to allow same-sex couples to adopt.
- Prohibits state government discrimination against religious organizations that decline to solemnize same-sex marriages or make employment decisions based on religious beliefs concerning marriage.
According to Mississippi Today, Gov. Phil Bryant said of the Supreme Court’s order, “As I have said from the beginning, 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.”
Jennifer Riley Collins – executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi, which helped in a challenge to the law – said her organization was “deeply disappointed” in the high court’s action.
“This law very simply is a license to discriminate,” Collins said in a written statement. “While the right to one’s religious belief is fundamental, a license to discriminate is not. Same-sex couples deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else.”
The ACLU expects its narrower challenge on behalf of a same-sex couple to make progress in the courts, Collins said.
The law has resulted in some cities and states forbidding government travel to Mississippi. Cities that have issued such bans include Baltimore; Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. Among states that have prohibited government travel to Mississippi are Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)