Gay Marriage

Mississippi's New LGBT Law Is About Protecting Only Certain Religious Beliefs

This is not a religious freedom act.


Gov. Phil Bryant
Gov. Phil Bryant. Source: USDA

Republican Mississippi  Gov. Phil Bryant has signed a new bill into law in his state that lets religious people and institutions discriminate in some areas on the basis of attitudes toward homosexuality and transgender identities.

It can be complicated to evaluate what these laws do. What Mississippi has approved is very different from what Georgia's legislature approved (and was then vetoed by the governor) and what North Carolina approved. I'll get basic about it.

To start, this is not a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA). Those acts (which was mostly what Georgia passed) mimic a federal law that allows individuals to use their religious beliefs as a defense against complying with certain laws. It's not a perfect defense—the government must then respond by showing that the law meets a compelling government interest and that the law is the least intrusive way of meeting that interest. An RFRA is not a "do whatever you want" exemption for any religion.

HB 1523 starts by making it clear that its goal is to protect three beliefs in particular, not the right to live life based on one's religion as a whole. Those three 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 (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

It then implements regulations that protect some behaviors based on these beliefs:

  • Religious organizations (churches, religious schools and hospitals, et cetera) cannot be accused of discrimination on the basis of making decisions based on the above beliefs. Religious organizations cannot be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages or provide services or accommodations for them. They can make hiring and firing decisions based on these beliefs (which I guess means they can fire single people for having sex if they want). They can make decisions on selling or renting property on the basis of these beliefs.
  • The government cannot discriminate against religious foster and adoption agencies for decisions on where to place children based on the above mentioned beliefs. Furthermore the state cannot discriminate against a potential foster or adoptive parent on the basis of them sharing the above beliefs and intending to raise a child based on these religious beliefs.
  • The government cannot take action against therapists or medical professionals for refusing to provide their services if it violates the above beliefs. This doesn't mean that doctors can just refuse to provide medical care in general for gays and transgender people. It means therapists don't have to counsel those who want to switch genders over this process, doctors do not have to perform the surgery, and fertility services may be refused for a same-sex couple looking to reproduce through non-traditional means.
  • Businesses that provide goods and services for weddings cannot be forced to serve couples (presumably same-sex couples, but I guess it would also apply to polyamorous ceremonies, should they come up) if the business owner has a sincere religious belief of the three mentioned above.
  • The state cannot stop businesses and schools from deciding whether to accommodate transgender individuals in facilities like bathrooms or lockers or to establish sex-specific access guidelines based on the above beliefs. Furthermore, the law also indicates that businesses and schools can set "dress and grooming" guidelines, which appears to mean that schools can outright forbid transgender students from even dressing as their preferred sex.
  • The state cannot punish its own government employees for refusing to hand out marriage licenses or refusing to solemnize wedding ceremonies if doing so would violate the above religious beliefs (as what happened with Kim Davis). However, the law requires that they must formally recuse themselves in writing, and the courts are responsible for making sure that the couples who want to get legally married (as in, same-sex couples) may still do so.

That's a lot of stuff to consider, and some of the consequences are not entirely clear. Does this mean that if a religious couple wanted to adopt an openly gay teen and declare that they're going to pursue "conversion" therapy to try to turn the kid straight, would it be against this law for a state agency to use that as a reason not to place the teen with them?

This all has much broader implications in some ways than what passed in North Carolina, so we'll see what happens next. Today PayPal announced it was going to abandon plans to expand and open a center in Charlotte because of the law North Carolina passed.