A bill that would have safeguarded the religious liberty of individuals and organizations who refuse to participate in same-sex weddings or gender identity transitions was struck down by a U.S. district judge June 30, hours before the bill was slated to take effect July 1.
The law “does not advance the interest the State says it does,” Judge Carlton Reeves wrote in his 60-page ruling, which issued a preliminary injunction against the measure. “Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise, it creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is not rationally related to a legitimate end.”
The injunction took effect immediately and will become permanent if upheld on appeal.
Reeves, appointed by President Obama in 2010, said the legislation, known as House Bill 1523, established preferred religious beliefs, violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The proposed bill sent a message to Mississippians who did not support it that “they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are inside, favored members,” wrote Reeves, who added that the bill’s “broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens.”
Chas Rowland, pastor of Bovina Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Miss., voiced his opposition to the court ruling.
“I find it inconceivable that a law which protects individuals from being forced by the government to violate their religious consciences would be ruled unconstitutional,” said Rowland, a member of Mississippi Baptists’ Christian Action Commission. “Our national perspective on religious liberty is alarming. Somewhere along the way, the First Amendment has been changed from protecting individuals from the government imposing its values upon them to ensuring that the government can impose its values upon individuals.
“This decision should remind all Baptists that we must labor for religious liberty if we want to try and maintain it as a civil right in our culture. Baptists came to America in search of religious liberty and had to fight to gain that liberty in our nation’s founding. Sadly, the liberty for which we fought is sliding away before our eyes. I would be alarmed if I was not confident in God’s sovereign plan and providence. We must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but our religious consciences do not belong to Caesar,” Rowland told Baptist Press in written comments.
Susan Glisson, one of the 13 individual plaintiffs in the case, describes herself as “a member of the Southern Baptist Church co-founded by my grandparents” who has “studied and reflected upon my faith choice almost all my life,” according to the court ruling. “I am convinced that the heart of the gospel is unconditional love. To condemn the presence of God in another human being, especially using faith claims or scripture to do so, is wrong and violates all of the tenets of my Christian faith,” Glisson said.
Philip Gunn, immediate past trustee chairman at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and speaker of the Mississippi House, authored H.B. 1523 in attempt to protect the rights of Mississippians with “deeply held religious beliefs,” according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
After the ruling was issued, Gunn tweeted, “Disappointed in Judge Reeves’ HB 1523 ruling. We felt like this was a good bill, protecting religious beliefs & the rights of LGBT community.”
Among its provisions, the bill would have:
Forbidden state government from taking “any discriminatory action” against an individual who declined on religious grounds to provide photography, floral arrangements or other wedding services for a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Forbidden state government discrimination against any person who established, on religious grounds, “sex-specific standards or policies” concerning access to restrooms or locker rooms.
Permitted any person authorized to license or perform marriages to seek recusal from same-sex weddings on religious grounds. At the same time, the bill required 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.”
Forbidden state government discrimination against adoption agencies that declined, based on religious convictions, to allow same-sex couples to adopt.
Forbidden state government discrimination against religious organizations that declined to solemnize same-sex marriages or make employment decisions based on religious beliefs concerning marriage.
The bill specified that “the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that: (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Daniel Woodman, who will be a junior journalism major at the University of Missouri, is a summer intern with Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.