Religious-Freedom Law Debated in Fifth Circuit

LUBBOCK, Texas (CN) – The Fifth Circuit heard arguments Monday afternoon about a Mississippi law that would let 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.

A federal judge blocked Mississippi’s so-called “religious freedom law” last year as unconstitutional, but Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appealed that ruling. The law would have taken effect in July and in part allowed county clerks to disqualify themselves from handing marriage licenses to gay couples based on their religion.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said that portion of the state’s law violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 gay marriage ruling.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling will be enforced,” Reeves wrote in his June 2016 ruling.

Plaintiffs continue to argue that the law, HB 1523, “is unprecedented and violates the First Amendment’s guarantee that government cannot endorse, or establish, religion.”

“The entire point of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment is to protect the religious beliefs of all Americans, not just the views of some Americans, or even the views of the majority of Americans,” said Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel for the Campaign for Southern Equality, which brought one of the lawsuits challenging the law. “HB 1523 flies in the face of this long and cherished constitutional tradition.”

Monday’s hearing, held in Lubbock, Texas, is the first time a federal appeals court has heard arguments on an anti-LGBT state law since January 2015.

Kevin Theriot, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom who is defending the law as part of Gov. Bryant’s legal team, says that the legislation simply protects those “who believe in marriage between a man and a woman.”

“Good laws like Mississippi’s protect freedom, but they harm no one. Those challenging this law really are just trying to restrict freedom and impose their beliefs on others,” Theriot said.

Fifth Circuit Judges Jerry E. Smith, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Catharine Haynes made up Monday’s three-judge panel.

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