Judge blocks Mississippi’s ‘religious freedom’ law

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued a ruling blocking Mississippi’s so-called “religious freedom law,” just minutes before it was set to go into effect, according to reports by Mississippi Today.

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Judge Carlton Reeves

In an article by Larrison Campbell, the digital news source says:

“In a blistering opinion that reached into Mississippi’s segregationist past, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves said House Bill 1523, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, was another unfortunate example of Mississippi trying to write discrimination into its laws.

“‘Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens,’ Reeves wrote in his opinion.”

Gov. Bryant said HB 1523 “simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law,” and that he is “disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality.” He also said he looks forward to “an aggressive appeal” of the ruling.

But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had a different take. He told Mississippi Today that the “churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB1523 protected religious freedoms,” adding, “Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies.  No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason.  I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man.”

Mississippi Today explains that “House Bill 1523 singles out three ‘sincerely held’ religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth. The law protects from litigation anyone who speaks out against gay marriage or transgender individuals because of these beliefs.”

Earlier this week, Judge Reeves struck down a portion of the law that allowed the state’s county clerks to refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on the clerks’ “sincerely-held” religious beliefs.

—  Tammye Nash

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signs ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant

You would think that what is happening in North Carolina — boycotts, etc. — after Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law discriminatory legislation would have served as a lesson to other states considering similar laws. But apparently not. It seems that — at least in some places — bigotry continues to outweigh fairness, business sense and common sense. Case in point, Mississippi:

“Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the state’s religious freedom bill Tuesday, according to a statement tweeted to his account. Watchdog groups have decried the bill as discriminatory against the LGBT community, while proponents say it’s intended only to protect those with strongly held religious beliefs. Bryant said he signed the law ‘to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government.'” (Breaking news just posted online by WAPT Channel 16 in Jackson, Miss.)

—  Tammye Nash

Missouri GOP ends Democratic filibuster of religious freedom bill

Missouri state senateMissouri Republican senators have broken a 39-hour Democratic filibuster and passed a resolution allowing individuals and small businesses to deny service to LGBT people and others who violate “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The First Amendment Defense Act passed 23-9 and now heads to the state House, where it is expected to pass as well. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, voiced opposition to the bill but has little control over its fate.

It will go before voters this fall.

 

—  James Russell

Attorney General Ken Paxton should resign

James Russell columnIn the seven months that Ken Paxton has served as Texas’ top law enforcement officer, he has slammed the federal government for its immigration policies, the Environmental Protection Agency for its environmental regulations, the Supreme Court for its rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing marriage equality nationwide, defended the state’s stringent anti-abortion law and praised in broad terms further deregulation of the Second Amendment.

To be fair, as Texas Attorney General, Paxton’s office must defend the state court lawsuits, including those filed by his predecessor, now-Gov. Greg Abbott. Just like his predecessor he also has ambitions for higher office. Also like Abbott, his statements read like a fundraising letter. While it is clear he inherited a politicized office from Abbott, Paxton has recently done the office nor taxpayers NO additional favors.

Paxton is already under investigation by a Collin County grand jury for violating state securities law, an admission he made freely and then paid a $1,000 fine for. Under state law, it is illegal for an attorney to accept client commissions without registering first with the state securities board. Paxton not only broke the law but also broke a law he helped pass a state legislator.

Despite this revelation on the campaign trail he defeated two Republican challengers, former Rep. Dan Branch and former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman. In the general election he defeated Democrat opponent Sam Houston, a Houston-area attorney, in a landslide. Of course, in both instances he was boosted by an energized grassroots and the support of wealthy Tea Party backers. They encouraged, or, more likely were encouraged by, his hard-line rhetoric on any number of issues. (Who wrote the talking points remains the question.)

Regardless of what he may actually believe, when looking for a quick political ascendency, look no further then the Texas GOP grassroots and their wealthy backers for advice. From state representative to one-term state senator to the state’s top law enforcement office,he got what he wanted.

Sadly Paxton’s carelessness, irresponsibility and smugness did not end with an admission or a fine, much less at the door of his private practice. He has also taken those traits to his taxpayer-funded office.

Following Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, his office issued the requisite statement denouncing the decision. He also predictably, following April’s arguments, released a statement defending the state’s marriage ban.

Despite it being out of his responsibility, he then issued an opinion permitting county clerks and other government officials to decline to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if it violates their religious beliefs. While responsibly acknowledging clerks may be held liable, he sealed the fundraising envelope when he offered pro bono legal defense to any clerk mired in litigation for the decision. Religious liberty is an inherent right extended to all individuals, including those who genuinely oppose or support same-sex marriage for those reasons.

Even if you disagree politically or morally, issuing a marriage license does not mean you are sanctioning it. You cannot flout federal law.

Sadly that’s not what he told county clerks and potential donors across the state.

Between his politicization of his office and clear disregard for the law as represented by the pending criminal probe and irresponsible opinion on marriage equality, it has become clear Paxton is unfit for office. But in using Paxton’s logic, I can only conclude two things: breaking the law doesn’t violate his religious convictions, but resigning does. Whether or not a criminal indictment decides his professional fate in spite of any religious convictions, however, is an entirely different matter.

—  James Russell

North Carolina legislature overrides veto for LGBT discrimination bill

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Gov. Pat McCrory

The North Carolina Legislature overrode a veto by North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory today (Thursday, June 11) of a so-called religious freedom bill that allows discrimination against gays and lesbians in the state.

The law will allow state officials opt out of doing their jobs by signing a statement about their “deeply held religious beliefs.”

While the governor expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, “we are a nation and a state of laws.”

The law will cause delays for same-sex couples trying to get married, especially in rural areas.

North Carolina became a marriage equality state with other 4th Circuit states West Virginia and South Carolina on Oct. 8, 2014.

—  David Taffet

BREAKING: Accord reached on Pastor Protection Act, guaranteeing religious freedom and marriage equality

Texas-CapitolA bill reaffirming the rights of clergy to refuse to perform marriages — including same-sex marriages — that violate their religious beliefs has passed in the Texas House on a bipartisan vote, after its sponsor reassured legislators clergy may only refuse to perform those marriages in their official capacity.

SB 2065 passed 141-2 after questions about whether clergy members who also serve as county clerks, justices of the peace or in other government capacities may deny licenses to same-sex couples, interfaith couples and other couples they may find objectionable.

In a moving statement before its passage, openly lesbian Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, commended the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, for carrying it. She told the floor she believes LGBT justice and religious freedom may coexist.

Despite rumors that Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, intended to try and attach his anti-gay HB 4105 to Sanford’s bill as an amendment, the amendment never came. HB 4105 would have withheld pay from county clerks issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It died last week without coming to a vote.

—  James Russell

UPDATE: Bill protecting clergy from performing same sex marriages passes Senate 21-10

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Sen. Craig Estes, R- Wichita Falls, authored SB 2065.

SB 2065 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, which would protect clergy members from performing same-sex marriages passed 21-10.

The ACLU, Equality Texas and Texas Freedom Network advocated for language that a clergy member may only refuse to officiate marriages that violate their conscience “in that official capacity” failed. Despite their efforts Estes refused in both the State Affairs committee hearing and on the floor to add the language.

Without the four words, they argued, faith leaders may be able to deny same-sex marriage licenses if they serve in a secular capacity, such as justice of the piece or county clerk.

Proponents, including numerous conservative faith leaders, argued the bill was necessary to protect their right to deny performing a same-sex marriage.

“The First Amendment already protects clergy from being forced to officiate religious ceremonies that violate their consciences, so it’s unnecessary to pass a bill to protect against this,” said Sarah Jones, a communications associate with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “But if a member of the clergy accepts a job as a public official, they have a duty to uphold the laws of the state and municipality in which they serve, and should treat all people equally and fairly.

The bill’s passage comes ahead of a summer Supreme Court hearing on marriage equality.

The Senate will make one final procedural vote tomorrow (Tuesday, May 12) when the House votes on its companion, HB 3567 by Rep. Scott Sanford. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, previously said he intends to sign the bill.

—  James Russell

To RFRA or not

Religious liberty bills promise freedom, but for whom?

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JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

In a 1989 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, involving two men who were fired for smoking peyote as part of a sacred Native American ritual and then denied state unemployment benefits, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a lower court ruling declaring that the two were not fired out of religious bias but because they violated state drug laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the Oregon Supreme Court to decide if a state could deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes? The Oregon Supreme Court ultimately sided, in a 6-3 decision, with Oregon’s Employment Division.

That ruling concerned both secular civil libertarians and those with deeply held religious beliefs, said Elizabeth Oldmixon, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas in Denton. A broad coalition then worked with Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

That bill, said Oldmixon, told the Supreme Court that in such cases, to give the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiffs, not the government.

Among the groups in that earlier coalition was Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan educational organization that preserves church-state separation.

Today that group is actively involved in debate over state versions of religious freedom restoration bills popping up in legislatures across the country, primarily in response to court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage and an upcoming decision from the U.S. Supreme Court expected to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

The first RFRA to pass and be signed into law this year came in Indiana. Gov. Mike Pence signed that bill on Thursday, March 26.

Sarah Jones, AU’s communications associate, said the federal RFRA “passed as a shield to protect religious minorities, such as non-theists, Muslims and Jews. It strikes a balance between religious expression and the federal government’s interest in enforcing laws.”

But the federal law soon fell under scrutiny again, when the Supreme Court again struck down a portion of the 1997 Boerne v Flores ruling, said Chicago Kent College of Law Professor Sheldon H. Nahmod. That case asked whether or not the city of Boerne, Texas could prevent a Catholic church from expanding because of historical landmark and preservation laws. The court ruled for the church.

Striking RFRA’s application to state and local governments left only the federal application intact, Nahmod explained. Then another act of Congress resulted in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed by President Clinton in 2000.

That ruling set a precedent for another Supreme Court ruling, however.

In 2012, Hobby Lobby, the national arts and crafts chain, sued the federal government over a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable  Care Act requiring employers to provide contraception coverage. Hobby Lobby v Burwell claimed covering contraception was a violation of the chain’s owners’ religious beliefs under the RFRA.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby.

What conservative groups praised about the ruling, others panned.

At the state level
If one term could sum up the dispute between the two factions in the battle over state religious freedom laws, it’s “broad.” In the Burwell case, the term means either an unconstitutional overreach or a victory for religious liberty.

Supporters of current religious liberty bills, said Jones, “claim they just reaffirm what the federal bill already says. That isn’t true. These state level bills are written much more broadly and contain discriminatory provisions that aren’t present in the federal bills.”

She said additionally the Hobby Lobby decision ultimately “granted special privileges. One of the most common ‘special privileges’ is allowing small businesses the right to discriminate against customers, such as same-sex couples.”

But Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, author of the Texas bill — HJR 125 — disagreed. Krause, a lawyer, interprets the federal RFRA much like Oldmixon or Jones. In written answers emailed to him, Krause said the federal RFRA “walks that fine line by asserting that the federal government can only burden the free exercise of religion (or conscience) if it has a compelling interest in doing so and it’s done in the least restrictive means possible. It gives citizens a cause of action to challenge the actions of government in these certain contexts.”

The bill, if enacted, he wrote, would codify in the state Constitution the state’s current religious freedom act, which passed in 1999.

In its current state, according to the Texas Freedom Network, the Texas RFRA bars measures that “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion. In addition, it includes other carefully crafted language that has helped avoid unnecessary lawsuits while providing various remedies and ensuring that the law is not abused. It currently mirrors the federal RFRA.

Passage of HJR 125 would change nothing, according to Krause.

“All I am trying to do is give our Texas RFRA constitutional protection,” he wrote. “There were efforts to make Texas’ RFRA language constitutional as far back as two sessions ago. It’s important to remember this is not a reaction to recent events … before we had any instances of bakers, florists or photographers. The intent was by no means an ‘intent to discriminate’ or ‘license to discriminate’ but rather good policy that has served Texas well for over a decade and it deserved constitutional protection.”

Selisse Berry, founder and CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, is convinced that bills like Krause’s and its Senate companion, HJR 10 by Sen. Donna Campbell, are discriminatory.

“It reminds me of people of color not being served. It’s an overall sad state of affairs, especially given the advances of LGBT workplace equality,” she said by phone.

After signing Indiana’s religious freedom bill into law amidst backlash from a wide variety of groups, Gov. Mike Pence asked that state’s legislature to assure discrimination against LGBT people will not be allowed. But, if Krause and others said discrimination is not their intention, are activists wrong about the RFRAs?

Chicago Kent’s Nahmod said it’s difficult to tell if these pieces of legislation are motivated by anti-LGBT animus.

“Indiana doesn’t have a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance,” he said, and while it could be argued signing the RFRA was a last-ditch push to prevent passage of a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance, that can’t be proven.

“But if discrimination is the intention, then they may be seriously unconstitutional,” Nahmod said.

But Berry disagreed.

“It’s naïve to say Pence’s decision to sign the bill was not motivated by discrimination,” she said. “Whether [these bills are] intentionally meant to discriminate or not, it’s clear the LGBT community needs a federal nondiscrimination ordinance,” she said. “We have state and city nondiscrimination ordinances [but] we still need a federal law to protect LGBT people.”

……………………

Religious liberty bills currently under consideration in the Texas Legislature include:

• HB 3567 by Rep. Scott Sanford. Would prevent the government from punishing a clergy member  or person of faith who does not perform same-sex marriages.

• HB 3864, also by Rep. Sanford. Would allow child welfare organizations to deny care to children of LGBT parents based on religious beliefs. Sen. Donna Campbell filed its Senate companion, SB 1935.

• HB 3602 by Rep. Cecil Bell. Would bar retaliation against “conscientious objectors” who refuse to perform same-sex marriages. SB 1799 by Sen. Larry Taylor contains similar language.

• HB 55 by Rep. Jason Villalba and SJR 10 by Sen. Campbell. Would allow Texas’ businesses to refuse service or deny employment to LGBT people based on individual’s or religious organization’s beliefs. Villalba has since said he would reconsider his resolution, but Rep. Matt Krause filed the identical HJR 125 late on March 12.

• HB 2553 by Rep. Molly White. Would allow business owners to decide whom they serve or conduct business with based on religious convictions.

• HB 1355 by Rep. Matt Shaheen. Would make it a criminal offense for an elected official to threaten, punish or intimidate a person based on the person’s religious beliefs.

— James Russell

 

—  James Russell

BREAKING: Hutchinson won’t sign Arkansas ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced that he will not sign the “religious freedom” bill passed by lawmakers in his state last night, saying that he will instead send the measure back to the state Legislature for changes to make sure that it mirrors a federal law already in place, CNN is reporting.

Hutchinson said he made his decision because he wants Arkansas to be “known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance.”

He also said he is considering issuing an executive order than bans discrimination in the state’s workforce.

Hutchinson had initially said he would sign the religious freedom bill into law. His change of heart came following the firestorm that has erupted over a similar bill signed into law last week by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and after the CEO of WalMart, Arkansas’ largest business, issued a statement urging Hutchinson to veto the bill.

Hutchinson said, “The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions. It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

CNN notes that Hutchinson said his own son, signed a petition urging him not to sign the bill.

—  Tammye Nash

Mississippi passes anti-gay hate law

mississippi-flag-e1387132309472The Mississippi Legislature passed an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill on Tuesday  similar to the one vetoed in Arizona. The law legalizes anti-gay discrimination as long as it’s done in the name of religion.

The bill that passed was rewritten after the Arizona bill was vetoed. The blatant anti-gay animus was removed. The new bill is simply written ambiguously so that there’s nothing unconstitutional about its wording. However, if anyone tries to use the law to justify discrimination, courts could strike it down as written only because of extreme animus against the LGBT community.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Eunice Rho told MSNBC.

Wording of the bill is modeled after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That law, though, passed by a bipartisan coalition, was not intended to encourage discrimination or limit anyone’s civil rights.

The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

—  David Taffet