Politics & Government

Mississippi's LGBT law likely to start 'race to the courthouse'

ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS 
 LGBT activists were fired up in Jackson on Monday even before Gov. Phil Bryant signed a 'regligious freedom' bill they believe discriminates against them.
ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS LGBT activists were fired up in Jackson on Monday even before Gov. Phil Bryant signed a 'regligious freedom' bill they believe discriminates against them. AP

An Ocean Springs attorney expects a "rush to the courthouse" with challenges to Mississippi's Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.

Diane Ellis, a family law attorney who represents several LGBT couples, said she expects to file suits that will allege the law discriminates against LGBT people and unconstitutionally establishes a religion.

"There are several groups that will challenge this," she said. "I don't think anyone is going to let this law stand. It can't be allowed to stand."

Attorney General Jim Hood has said that the law wouldn't protect anyone who violates a federal law or a person's constitutional rights.

"Any lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 1523 will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Hood said in a statement. "We would caution government officials and others that House Bill 1523 does not override federal law or constitutional rights. If a person or government official violates a federal statute or constitutional provision, House Bill 1523 will not protect that official from a federal lawsuit or from potential personal liability under federal law."

Ellis argues that's exactly what the law does.

"It establishes certain religious beliefs as protected and that essentially establishes a state religion which is prohibited by the first amendment," she said.

And she said to her knowledge no one in Mississippi has said they have been threatened with legal action because they refused service to a same-sex couple.

"There was a lawsuit in another state where a lesbian couple sued a bakery," she said. "It was portrayed as being about the bakery's refusal to bake a cake but there's more to the story. It wasn't about the cake. The owners of the bakery harassed them on Facebook."

Here is the final order in that case.

Ellis also said there is an easy test to see how the law discriminates.

"If you substitute mixed-race couple in any of these instances (where same-sex couples are mentioned), it becomes obvious it is wrong," she said.

Gov. Phil Bryant and other supporter of the bill disagree.

"This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state under federal or state laws," Bryant said after he signed the law. "It does not attempt to challenge federal laws, even those which are in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution, as the Legislature recognizes the prominence of federal law in such limited circumstances."

So Ellis expects a protracted legal fight that will be expensive for taxpayers.

"I don't think Mississippi is going to give up easily," she said. "I have no idea what it will cost the state but it's going to be ridiculous. It will be a waste of a gratuitous amount of money."

And then there is the cost to Mississippi's image.

"It reinforces the view of a bunch of backwards rednecks that the world sees us as," she said. "The majority of Mississippians are good, kind people. The majority chooses to follow the words of Jesus."

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