Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves’ ruling in Barber v. Bryant enjoined a new Mississippi state law – House Bill 1523, or the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act” (“HB 1523”) – that would have gone into effect on July 1, 2016. The court struck down HB 1523 on the grounds that it violated both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.
HB 1523 authorized discrimination by businesses and public employees who asserted one of three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions”: namely, the beliefs that marriage should be “the union of one man and one woman,” that sexual relations should only occur within a heterosexual marriage, and that a person’s gender is defined by their “anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.”
For instance, under HB 1523, an unmarried woman could be fired if she got pregnant, a healthcare provider could refuse to treat a transgender patient, or a state employee could refuse to sign a marriage license for a same-sex couple – and such discrimination would be lawful, as long as the discriminator maintained at least one of the aforementioned “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Barber held that HB 1523 violated the Establishment Clause because the statute established “an official preference for certain religious beliefs over others.” Reeves pointed out that the bill did not give other “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” the same degree of deference that it afforded the three enumerated beliefs.
In fact, several of the plaintiffs challenging HB 1523 had objected to the law because the terms of the bill violated their sincerely held religious beliefs, which proscribed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As HB 1523 did not protect these beliefs, but gave special protection to opposing views, the court held that the bill unconstitutionally privileged particular religious groups.
In support of the finding that HB 1523 violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the court noted that the “deprivation of equal protection of the laws is HB 1523’s very essence,” as the plain text of the law isolates a group of citizens and unilaterally denies them state protection. As neither the Fifth Circuit nor the Supreme Court has found sexual orientation to be a suspect classification, HB 1523 was not subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny and needed only to pass the rational basis test, which requires a challenged law to be rationally related to a legitimate government interest.
However, the court found that HB 1523 could not even withstand the lenient standard of rational basis review, as it was not rationally related to the purported state interest in protecting citizens’ religious freedoms. Rather than adding or augmenting protections for the free exercise of religion, the statute, Reeves wrote, simply “creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination.”
If your employer has discriminated against you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.