Politics & Government

LGBT advocates: Judge blocking HB 1523 was ‘amazing,’ ‘incredible’

Deborah Watkins, left, and Anita Twiner of Long Beach apply for a marriage license at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport on Monday June 29, 2015. On Thursday, Judge Carlton Reeves declared HB1523, a law many considered a reaction to gay marriage in Mississippi, unconstitutional.
Deborah Watkins, left, and Anita Twiner of Long Beach apply for a marriage license at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport on Monday June 29, 2015. On Thursday, Judge Carlton Reeves declared HB1523, a law many considered a reaction to gay marriage in Mississippi, unconstitutional. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The day after a federal judge overturned a Mississippi law on religious objections to same-sex marriage, the governor said Friday he would appeal and the attorney general said the public had been “duped” by the measure.

The LGBT community celebrated.

“Isn’t it incredible that the citizens of Mississippi just confirmed and reaffirmed why we still call Mississippi home and the reason why we felt compelled to never give up on it?” said Lynn Koval, a longtime LGBT advocate on the Coast and the owner of Just Us, a gay bar in Biloxi.

Federal Judge Carlton Reeves blocked HB 1523, the so-called “religious freedom” bill, in a ruling Thursday moments before it was to take effect at midnight Friday.

“Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation,” Reeves wrote in his decision, “and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under the law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.”

Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act into law in April, drawing a swift response from civil rights activists in Mississippi and across the U.S., in addition to business and tourism groups on the Coast.

The law specifically protected three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman; that sexual relations should only take place inside marriage; and that a person’s “immutable biological sex” is determined at birth.

Proponents of the bill argued it simply protected First Amendment religious rights but opponents contended the law protected only one set of beliefs.

Reeves seemed to agree with the latter.

“The State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” he wrote.

The judge cited a 2000 Supreme Court ruling when he said: “Showing such favor tells ‘nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and ... adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’”

“It’s just amazing is what it is,” said Molly Kester, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center. “The extent of how he broke down every part of 1523 and made good arguments against each part and chastised politicians for putting 1523 into law.”

Bryant said in a statement he was looking forward to an “aggressive appeal.”

“Like I said when I signed House Bill 1523, the law simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law,” his statement said. “I am disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality.”

Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement the state’s attorneys would evaluate whether to appeal the ruling on his office’s behalf. He said based on the state’s budget crisis, he “will have to think long and hard about spending taxpayer money to appeal the case against (my office).”

But he issued a strong personal statement against the law.

“I can’t pick my clients, but I can speak for myself as a named defendant in this lawsuit. The fact is that the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB1523 protected religious freedoms. Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies. No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason.

“I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man.”

Renick Taylor, an LGBT activist and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said, “I’m happy to have been a part of the team that helped strike down this hurtful, needless bill. Before this bill was passed, I said it was unconstitutional and bound to fail.

“I hope this slap in the face corrects the behavior of the Mississippi Legislature because if they try it again, we will be there again.”

Two lawsuits were filed after the the bill was signed into law — one by the Mississippi Center for Justice on behalf of a diverse group of gay and straight plaintiffs, and one by the Campaign for Southern Equality and an Episcopal priest.

The Campaign for Southern Equality also challenged the law by reopening its 2014 lawsuit that helped overturn Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Beth Orlansky, advocacy director at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the group was “thrilled.”

“This was a real mean-spirited law that targeted certain citizens of Mississippi and said it’s OK to treat them differently,” she said. “We thought very strongly that the state needs to treat all its citizens fairly, equitably and not point fingers at people because they are different.”

The ruling will not be the end of the fight for many in the LGBT community, though.

“I think it’s a positive step for Mississippi,” Kester said. “It gives Mississippi a better look and brings back some of the people who thought discrimination was the rule of thumb in Mississippi. It’s a building block for progress but we’re already making plans for the next battle.”

Koval said even in her excitement she was wondering what would happen next — and whether there would be a backlash.

“I think we’re done when it comes to gay marriage,” she said. “But we’re not done as a gay community striving for equal rights.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Regina Zilbermints: 228-896-2340, @RZilbermints

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