JACKSON, Miss. (Christian Examiner) – When it comes to providing services to gays and lesbians, there is no such thing as a right of refusal – even if the service provided violates the religious conscience of public service employees, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charged in a federal lawsuit May 9.
Filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of a gay couple, Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, the ACLU lawsuit alleges that Mississippi's House Bill 1523, which establishes protections for those who object to the support of same-sex marriage, is a violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Mississippi's Registrar of Vital Records Judy Moulder is named as the defendant in the suit because, the plaintiffs allege, the state has created separate, but unequal procedures for the licensing of same-sex marriages. Alford and Thomas call the law and its implementation a "slap in the face."
At this point, the lawsuit – a pre-enforcement challenge – does not address business owners who might refuse service to same-sex couples. For now, the focus is only on state employees who might recuse themselves from issuing a marriage license when the law takes effect July 1.
"By creating a separate and unequal set of laws applying on to the marriages of same-sex couples, HB 1523 imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi," the complaint said. The law allows public employees to recuse themselves from authorizing, licensing or solemnizing gay marriages "based upon or in a manner consistent with sincerely held religious belief and moral conviction."
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The lawsuit from the gay couple references the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the high court created the right to same-sex marriage nationwide. That ruling claimed that same-sex couples deserve the "same legal treatment as opposite sex couples." So refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple should never occur, the suit claims, because the same services are not provided.
"HB 1523 provides complete immunity for certain individuals and organizations to act or refuse to act based on their religious or moral beliefs that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman," the lawsuit said.
Josh Block, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said in a statement the organization is "stepping up to fight this sweeping anti-LGBT and unconstitutional law."
"HB 1523 has no rightful place in Mississippi or in our history books, and we're hopeful this lawsuit can stop as much of it as possible before it goes into effect. We won't rest until every last piece of this law is struck down and all LGBT people in Mississippi have equal justice under the law," Block said.
According to the so-called civil liberties group, the law passed in Mississippi also makes it possible for business owners to discriminate against transgenders and others who have sexual relations outside of marriage. Those cases are presumably under threat of an ACLU lawsuit in the future.
ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins claimed the organization would press the case to ensure people are "treated equally regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into effect in early April over the objections of LGBT advocates. Bryant said the bill was important because it protects state employees, business owners who do not wish to service same-sex weddings, and employers who want to set their own workplace policies – such as those for dress code and bathroom access.
Clay Chandler, spokesman for Gov. Bryant, said on Monday the ACLU is "trying to use the federal court system to push its liberal agenda."
"Instead of cherry-picking causes popular with the radical left, the ACLU should allocate its resources defending all civil liberties," Chandler said.