After being moved around on the calendar a number of times, Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 went into effect today. That bill, which was passed in March 2016, was set tobecome state law on Friday and then pushed back to Tuesdaybefore being bumped up to today.
Known as The Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, advocates say that HB 1523 is the United States’ most sweeping and extreme anti-LGBTQ law. The “religious liberty” legislation allows providers, government entities, and private individuals to deny services based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Gov. Phil Bryant argued that the law was necessary to ensure people of faith are “free to peacefully live and work without fear of being punished.”
But the civil rights groups who have been fighting the introduction of HB 1523 tell INTO that the opposite is true: The law relegates queer and trans residents of Mississippi to “second-class citizens.”
How Does HB 1523 Impact LGBTQ People?
Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, says that the legislation “cuts across all manner of everyday experiences and kinds of services people access.” HB 1523 will allow Kim Davis-style discrimination: County clerks could refuse to sign a marriage license for same-sex couples if their religion doesn’t approve of the union. Although Sommer claims that government officials are supposed to find another employee to provide these services, the law hasn’t spelled out “what that process looks like.”
“That could entail a humiliating handoff for a same-sex couple who are exercising their Constitutional right to marry,” she says.
In addition, Sommer claims that HB 1523 could permit foster care agencies and adoptive parents to subject queer youth to conversion therapy, the discredited, harmful practice of trying to “change” someone’s sexual orientation. The law also allows medical providers to discriminate against transgender people seeking healthcare or even life-saving services. EMTs in Washington, D.C. left Tyra Hunter, a 25-year-old trans woman, to die on the side of the road following a fatal 1995 car accident. HB 1523 would give those technicians total impunity.
Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of ACLU of Mississippi, says that the law is so “overbroad and overreaching” that it could be used to target other populations: single women, people who have sex outside of marriage, and even African-Americans.
“It could impact mea single straight black womanbecause someone doesn’t want to serve me in their restaurant,” Riley-Collins tells INTO. “To serve me would ‘violate their religious beliefs.’ Even though we are well-aware that the bill was crafted to target the LGBTQ community, its impacts are horrendous.”
HB 1523 will allow for discrimination in housing, employment, hospitals, schools, and all public accommodations (e.g., restrooms). That could mean a replay of House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial and costly bathroom law.
What Protections Do LGBTQ People Have?
Two cities in Mississippi have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances: Jackson and Magnolia. In addition, a number of universities have their own protections enumerated for queer and trans students, including the University of Mississippi.
Sommer called on more cities and local municipalities to join the fray by adding LGBTQ people to local laws preventing discrimination. The trouble is that those actions are primarily symbolic. Because it’s a state law, HB 1523 supersedes any legislation passed at the local level, effectively rendering those ordinances void.
“HB 1523 provides immunity from having to live up to those nondiscrimination protections if they have a religious belief or moral conviction that requires they discriminate,” Sommer says.
The unfortunate reality is, as Riley-Collins argues, that there are “no protections for LGBTQ people at the statewide level” in Mississippi. The Magnolia State is one of 30 where you can be fired from your job or denied an apartment because of who you are. Other states that boast that dubious distinction are Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and Virginia. Twenty-one percent of LGBTQ individuals say that they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, according to the Pew Research Center.
If queer and trans people have little recourse to prevent discrimination in their daily lives, the ACLU of Mississippi hopes to pass its own legislation counteracting that bigotry. Riley-Collins says that the civil rights group will continue to push the Mississippi Civil Rights Act, most recently introduced in 2016.
Its passage may be difficult, however, with Republicans boasting wide majorities in both the state’s House and Senate.
OK, So What Do We Do Now?
When the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld HB 1523 in June, judges did not dismiss the notion that the law couldn’t cause severe and lasting damage to LGBTQ communities in Mississippi. The court ruled against an injunction against the law because judges felt that the plaintiffs had demonstrated “an injury-in-fact caused by HB 1523 that would empower the district court or this court to rule on its constitutionality.”
The 5th Circuit ruled that prior to the law’s introduction, the harms of HB 1523 were purely theoretical.
But if the court left open the possibility that the damage of HB 1523 could be demonstrated, advocates say it’s important to document abuse LGBTQ individuals face as a result of the law. Riley-Collins encouraged queer and trans people to call the ACLU of Mississippi and report the discrimination they’re subjected to. Sommer adds that Lambda Legal has a help desk set up to help those impacted understand their rights and get appropriate legal advice.
“In order to take down this law, we must hear people who are directly impacted by it,” Sommer says.
The Fifth Circuit has already turned down an en banc review of HB 1523in which its constitutionality would be debated by the entire court, instead of a selected panel of judges. But LGBTQ advocates plan on challenging the Mississippi law at the nation’s highest bench. Lambda Legal will be filing a writ of certiorari on Tuesday, petitioning the Supreme Court to take the case. Lambda believes that HB 1523 violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which claims the government can elevate no religion above others.
With a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws introduced in recent years, Sommers claims the outcome of this challenge is pivotal.
“HB 1523 is very much a test balloon sent up in advance of other similar proposals that have been introduced in state legislatures and in Congress that would provide these kinds of absolute religious objections targeting LGBTQ people,” she says. “There’s a lot riding on this case.”