A federal judge struck down Mississippi's controversial "religious freedom" law late Thursday, hours before it was slated to take effect. If allowed to go forward, the law — known as House Bill 1523 — would have made it easier for individuals, organizations and private associations to deny services based on religious objections to one of three things: same-sex marriage, transgender rights and even extramarital sexual relationships.
In his 60-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, a President Obama appointee, concluded that the law "violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws." Reeves' decision to block HB 1523 in its entirety came three days after he struck down a portion of the law that would have allowed clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses based on "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions." That provision was inspired by Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who made national headlines in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Thursday's opinion marks a major victory for LGBT rights advocates, who in recent years have been fighting an onslaught of Republican-backed legislation widely seen as discriminatory. In many cases, these measures come in the form of state laws that provide legal cover to religious opponents of same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination protections.
But Reeves made clear in his opinion that the concept of religious freedom may not be used for those purposes.
"Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together," he wrote. "But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi's citizens. It must be enjoined."
Attorneys for the state are expected to appeal the decision. But in the meantime, LGBT rights advocates are hailing the ruling as a crucial win for equality.
"This legislation was rooted in hate, it targeted the LGBTQ community and it was a deliberate attempt to undermine marriage equality and the dignity of LGBTQ Mississippians who lawmakers have sworn to serve and protect," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement. "We will continue our fight to ensure that H.B. 1523 is repealed in its entirety."