JACKSON, Miss. — Attorneys representing the governor of Mississippi defended the state’s “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” in appeals court on Friday, declaring that “[n]o one has a ‘fundamental right’ to force an unwilling participant to attend or provide services at his or her wedding.”
“[T]here is nothing wrong with a statute that confers an absolute immunity from state punishment or discrimination upon those who … refuse to participate in abortions, warfare, capital punishment, Sabbath labor, or same-sex weddings,” they wrote.
As previously reported, last April, Bryant signed the Act, H.B. 1523, into law, which prohibits the government from punishing those who decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies or provide services or accommodations for the celebrations, as well as those whose policies require use of locker and restrooms consistent with their biological gender.
“The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that: marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth,” the legislation, authored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, reads.
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a legal challenge over the matter, representing two homosexual men—Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas—who called the law a “slap in the face” to their plans to tie the knot.
“H.B. 1523 has no rightful place in Mississippi or in our history books, and we’re hopeful this lawsuit can stop as much of it as possible before it goes into effect,” ACLU attorney Josh Block said in a statement.
In July, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued a preliminary injunction against the statute, stating that the law allowed “arbitrary discrimination” against homosexuals.
“The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” he opined.
Bryant’s office filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and this week, submitted a brief contending that the ACLU has made “false and exaggerated claims about the scope of HB 1523,” such as that restaurants and taxi cab drivers will be permitted to turn away homosexuals, or that businesses can deny services to anyone who has had sexual relations outside of marriage.
“Almost every statement in the CSE plaintiffs’ brief that describes HB 1523 is untrue or misleading in some respect,” attorneys for the governor wrote.
“Suffice it to say that the appellants will not, under any circumstance, interpret HB 1523 to shield restaurateurs that refuse to seat homosexual couples; foster parents who inflict child abuse; counselors who fail to take appropriate steps to prevent suicides; boisterous or disruptive state employees; county clerks who fail to recuse themselves in the manner specified by section 3(8); or jewelers who refuse to sell engagement rings to cohabiting couples,” they explained.
The attorneys noted that the law only applies to forms of personal participation in weddings and nothing else.
“No one has a ‘fundamental right’ to force an unwilling participant to attend or provide services at his or her wedding,” they wrote.
The ACLU had also asserted that the Conscience Act served as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, but Bryant’s office argued that “[l]aws that accommodate conscientious objectors and shield them from state-sponsored punishment or discrimination signify tolerance—not endorsement—of the protected conscientious or religious beliefs.”
“Americans shouldn’t live in fear of losing their careers or their businesses simply for affirming marriage as a husband-wife union,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, one of the attorneys on the case, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Those challenging this law have not and will not be harmed, but want to restrict freedom and impose their beliefs on others by ensuring dissenters are left open to the government discrimination that has already occurred in states without protective laws like this one.”