Mississippi’s “Religious Liberty” Law is a “License to Discriminate” and Unconstitutional, ADL Says

New York, NY, December 27, 2016...The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), together with a diverse group of religious and civil rights groups, filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans urging it to uphold a lower court decision that struck down Mississippi’s HB 1523—the so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”

The brief, which was filed on December 23, argues that under the pretext of religious liberty, HB 1523 violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by providing sweeping legal exemptions to public officials, individuals and businesses, who hold distinct religious beliefs about specific public policy issues.

“The record in this case is clear,” said David Barkey, ADL National Religious Freedom Counsel. “The Mississippi legislature sought to codify a preference for particular religious views opposing marriage equality, condemning sexual relations outside of opposite-sex marriage, and refusing to recognize the gender identity of transgender people. Doing so advances and endorses religion in clear violation of the Establishment Clause.

“We support appropriate and constitutional existing accommodations for religion that lift specific burdens on free exercise of faith without harming others,” Mr. Barkey said. “However, this bill is in no way a traditional accommodation of religion. Rather, it serves as a license to discriminate and effectively provides broad and unqualified legal permission to public officials, individuals, and businesses who hold specific religious beliefs to discriminate against and deny services to LGBT people and others. This is unconstitutional.”

HB 1523 was enacted during the State of Mississippi’s 2016 legislative session. In addition to exemptions from anti-discrimination laws and issuance of marriage licenses, it provides far-reaching immunity from governmental penalties in a number of areas, including taxation, employment, benefits, court proceedings, and financial grants.  During the legislature’s debate on the bill, State Representative Dan Eubanks, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said HB 1523 “protect[s] … what I am willing to die for ­ - and [what] I hope you that claim to be Christians are willing to die for [-] and that is your beliefs.”

The friend of the court brief filed in the case, Barber v. Bryant, was prepared by the law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP.  It was joined by the following organizations: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Bend the Arc, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, Hindu American Foundation, Interfaith Alliance, National Council of Jewish Women, People For the American Way Foundation, Union for Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism,  and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.

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