Americans United Joins The Fight In Court Against Mississippi's "Religious Freedom" Law

Image by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Image by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

So many things happened this year on the topic of religious freedom, it’s hard to remember them all. For instance, way back in April, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law the discriminatory HB 1523, which would have allowed religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate. Shortly after, a federal district court barred the state from enforcing the law and now Mississippi officials have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to overrule that decision.

Aimed at sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ couples, the Mississippi law reached much further. It would have allowed a range of individuals, corporations, healthcare providers, and nonprofit organizations— including those that receive taxpayer funding to perform social services— to refuse, based on their religious beliefs, to provide goods and services to same-sex couples, single mothers, divorcees, and anyone who has had sex outside of marriage and their families.

Here are just a few examples of the claims that could have been made under this law and the types of discrimination it could sanction:

  • a taxpayer-funded adoption agency could refuse to place a child with a loving family because the parents lived together before they were married;
  • a taxpayer-funded organization that provides shelter to kids who have suffered child abuse could turn away a pregnant teenager;
  • a counseling group practice could refuse to see a mother and her teen who is experiencing severe depression because the woman is unmarried;
  • a fertility clinic could refuse to treat a veteran and his partner because they are not married; and
  • a car rental agency could refuse to rent a car to a same-sex couple on their honeymoon.

We fought a variety of so-called religious freedom bills in legislatures across the country in 2016. As a result of intense advocacy and widespread backlash, most legislatures or governors had the good sense to stop these bills before they became law. Not Mississippi though.

Instead, the state is racking up significant legal bills. Faith leaders and members of the LGBTQ community in Mississippi immediately challenged the law in court and in June, a federal judge stopped the state from enforcing it. The state’s attorney general decided he couldn’t defend the discriminatory law in court, but the governor was more than willing to and appealed the lower court decision to the Fifth Circuit. 

On Friday, we joined an amicus brief opposing the law because it uses religion as an excuse to sanction discrimination. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value— it guarantees us the freedom to believe or not as we see fit. What it does not do, though, is grant anyone a right to harm others.

As 2016 winds down and we look ahead to 2017, we know we’ll face more efforts to misuse religious freedom to justify discrimination. Just like we have in the past, we’ll fight back.