Fifth Circuit Rules for Mississippi Religious-Freedom Law

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Fifth Circuit on Thursday dealt a blow to LGBT-rights activists in Mississippi when it ruled in favor of the state’s so-called religious-freedom law, finding the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue.

House Bill 1523 – also called the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act – would allow government employees, service providers and business owners cite their own religious beliefs to deny services to gay couples.

Opponents of the law say it is the nation’s most sweeping anti-LGBT religious exemption law, while supports believe it is necessary to protect freedom.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit overturned the 2016 injunction that prevented HB 1523 from becoming state law, finding the plaintiffs – Mississippi residents who claimed the legislation discriminated against them – haven’t been personally harmed by the law.

“The plaintiffs have not shown an injury-in-fact caused by HB 1523 that would empower the district court or this court to rule on its constitutionality,” Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote in the ruling, which did not consider the merits of the law itself.

The New Orleans-based appeals court heard oral arguments over the law in April.

“The court did the right thing in finding that those who have challenged this law haven’t been harmed and, therefore, can’t try to take the law down,” said senior counsel Kevin Theriot of Alliance Defending Freedom, who defended the law as part of Gov. Phil Bryant’s legal team.

He added, “The sole purpose of this law is to ensure that Mississippians don’t live in fear of losing their careers or their businesses simply for affirming marriage as a husband-wife union.”

The injunction blocking the law from taking effect will remain in place while the plaintiffs appeal the ruling to the full Fifth Circuit, according to Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel for the Campaign for Southern Equality, which brought one of the lawsuits challenging the law.

“This decision is not only deeply upsetting for the rights of LGBT individuals living in Mississippi, but also for the protection of religious liberty in our country,” Kaplan said in a statement. “We plan to seek an en banc review of the decision by the 5th Circuit.”

In striking down the law last year, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said that a portion of it violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 gay marriage ruling.

The Fifth Circuit left open the possibility that a future lawsuit could be brought by a plaintiff who can prove that they are injured by the law.

Smith was joined on the three-judge panel by Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod and Catharine Haynes.

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