Court Warns Mississippi Legislature on Efforts to Circumvent Marriage Equality

  • June 28, 2016

Yesterday, a federal court gave Mississippi’s legislature a stern warning about its efforts to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.  The warning was made in the context of plaintiffs to a marriage-equality lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi to reopen their case in a challenge to HB 1523, the State’s so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” which goes into effect on July 1st.

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Shortly after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, the District Court issued a permanent order making the marriage-equality ruling binding on the “… State of Mississippi and all of its agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries….”

Earlier this year, however, the State enacted HB 1523, which broadly allows Mississippians to deny goods or services to their fellow citizens based on their own “religious beliefs or moral convictions” that marriage is limited to opposite sex couples.  One HB 1523 provision empowers clerks and their subordinates to refuse issuance of marriage licenses based on this religious or moral viewpoint provided that “… marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  But the statute contains no protections to safeguard against impediments or delays.

The plaintiffs rightly argue that HB 1523 conflicts with the District Court’s permanent order, and are insisting that it be revised to fully protect their 14th Amendment marriage-equality rights.

In granting the plaintiffs’ request to reopen the case, the Court found that HB 1523 “… may in fact amend Mississippi’s marriage licensing regime in such a way as to conflict with Obergefell.”  Furthermore, it warned that State legislature that:

[T]he marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew every legislative session.  And the judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.

The plaintiffs’ request to the Court is part of a broader challenge to the constitutionality of HB 1523, which contains other provisions favoring particular religious or moral viewpoints, including limiting sexual relations to opposite-sex marriage and basing gender identity strictly on biological sex.   The law’s preferences are clearly inconsistent with the First Amendment’s free speech and establishment clauses.  Based on this court ruling, with its warning emphasizing judicial vigilance, there is reason to believe that the discriminatory HB 1523 will eventually be struck in its entirety.