Mississippi’s draconian “license to discriminate” law, allowing widespread discrimination against LGBT people and others — and making it harder to fight the HIV epidemic in the state — is now in effect, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling.
A lower court last year issued an injunction preventing the law from taking effect, but in early July a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit lifted it, saying those who sued to block the law lacked the standing to do so, reports The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss. The Fifth Circuit did not rule on the merits of the law.
Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant last year, allows businesses, individuals, and religiously affiliated organizations to deny service to LGBT people, single mothers, and others who somehow offend an individual’s “sincerely held religious belief.” It also directly targets transgender residents, effectively claiming that one’s sex assigned at birth is immutable, and will be the only gender legally recognized by the state.
Titled the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, it states that the government cannot penalize an individual, organization, or business for acting in accordance with their “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” But also that “marriage is, or should be, recognized as the union of one man and one woman;” that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage;” and that “male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” While the legislation was being considered, there were numerous protests at the Mississippi capitol and throughout the state.
A suit brought by the Campaign for Southern Equality against the law had been consolidated with another brought by Mississippi civil rights attorney Robert McDuff and the Mississippi Center for Justice, and joined by Lambda Legal. Just before it was set to go into effect last July, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the law as unconstitutional. Now that Reeves’s ruling was overturned, the plaintiffs plan to appeal, asking for the full Fifth Circuit to review the panel’s ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union will continue to pursue a separate suit that it filed.
The law will also undermine efforts to fight HIV and AIDS in Mississippi by further driving people into the closet, activists said. The state has been hit particularly hard by the epidemic — the capital city, Jackson, has the fourth-highest rate of HIV infection in the nation. Four in 10 gay and bi men in Jackson have HIV, according to an Emory University study. Numbers are not available for transgender women, but it’s generally acknowledged that they are at high risk for HIV, and the gender identity provision of the law could lead to them being denied health care.
“At the heart of the escalating HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. South is stigma and discrimination,” said a statement released by Elton John and David Furnish, founder and chairman, respectively, of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “Yet in that context, Mississippi lawmakers have decided to enact this hurtful, discriminatory law. This so-called ‘religious freedom’ law is nothing more than an attack on the dignity and rights of LGBT people in Mississippi and serves only to discriminate against us for being who we are. Laws like this further the stigma that prevents LGBT people from living safely and openly, and, ultimately, contribute to the HIV/AIDS crisis by driving people into the shadows and away from the treatment and care they need.”
The EJAF has made grants to My Brother’s Keeper, a nonprofit that operates a clinic and provides HIV education, testing, and treatment in the state. “In the last few months, too many of Mississippi’s teenagers have come to the clinic and faced the new reality of being HIV-positive in the midst of homelessness, poverty, and lack of health insurance,” said June Gipson, president and CEO of My Brother’s Keeper. “The HIV/AIDS epidemic is far from over, but instead of investing in education and resources needed to help high-risk communities, lawmakers in Mississippi have chosen to legislate in support of discrimination. This law hurts Mississippi’s growing LGBT community and furthers a health crisis that we at Open Arms Healthcare Center are working tirelessly to stop.”
EJAF and My Brother’s Keeper intend to keep fighting the law, as do several other LGBT rights groups.
“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,” said Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Campaign for Southern Equality suit, in a press release. “Our clients have already suffered enough. The state communicated a message loudly and clearly with the passage of HB 1523: only certain, anti-LGBT beliefs will get the protection and endorsement of the state. Under the logic of this opinion, it would be constitutional for the state of Mississippi to pass a law establishing Southern Baptist as the official state religion. We plan to seek an en banc review of the decision by the Fifth Circuit.”
ACLU of Mississippi executive director Jennifer Riley Collins issued this statement: “We are ready to move forward with our case filed on behalf of ACLU members Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, who are planning to marry in Mississippi in the near future. That case was put on hold until the court of appeals ruled. We will continue to proceed on behalf of Nykolas and Stephen to protect them, and other same-sex couples from this harmful and discriminatory law.”
Rob Hill, Mississippi state director for the Human Rights Campaign called the law “the most discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ state law in the country,” and added, “We will continue to fight tooth and nail against HB 1523 until it no longer threatens our community.”