U.S. Fifth Circuit - The FindLaw 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court Rules for Religious Freedom Law

A federal appeals court preserved Mississippi's so-called "religious freedom law" from a legal challenge by LGBT-rights activists.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs in Barber v. Bryant lacked standing to sue the state over the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. The law allows government employees, service providers, and businesses to deny services to gay couples and others based on religious beliefs without reprisal from the government.

The court said the plaintiffs had not shown they had any injury from the law, which opponents called the most sweeping anti-LGBT law based on religion in the country.

House Bill 1523

The Act, under House Bill 1523, covers a broad group of Mississippians. It provides that the "state government shall not take any discriminatory action" against anyone who acts in accordance with certain beliefs.

Those beliefs are: 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 or female refers to an individual's biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.

Among protected groups, the law extended to: religious organizations that make decisions regarding employment, housing, or marriage; doctors and mental health counselors who deny services so long as they do not interfere with visitation, designated representatives for health care decision-making, or emergency medical treatment; and businesses that offer wedding-related services.

A trial court judge enjoined the law, in part, concluding that it violated the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling in 2015 by saying county clerks and judges could not be compelled to license gay marriages based on religious beliefs. The Fifth Circuit reversed the injunction and dismissed the case.

No Harm, Proponents Claim

"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 Kevin Theriot, who defended the law for the governor's office.

"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."

Roberta Kaplan, representing one of the plaintiffs, said the injunction will remain in place while the plaintiffs consider an appeal.

"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. "We plan to seek an en banc review of the decision by the 5th Circuit."

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