JACKSON, Miss. — Attorneys for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant are defending a state law that lets government workers and private business people cite religious beliefs to deny services to LGBTQ people.
In arguments filed Monday to the U.S. Supreme Court, they wrote that the law protects people from being penalized for refusing to participate in activities they consider "immoral," such as same-sex marriage.
Legal experts say the 2016 Mississippi law is the broadest religious-objections law enacted by any state since the high court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
The law took effect last month amid multiple court challenges. It protects three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sex should only occur in such a marriage and that a person's gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.
An Arizona-based Christian group, Alliance Defending Freedom, helped write the Mississippi law. The alliance's Kevin Theriot was one of three attorneys who wrote the arguments submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of Republican Bryant.
"Until recently, there was no need for the law to protect the conscientious scruples of those who oppose same-sex marriage," the attorneys for the governor wrote. "That is because it was unthinkable — until recently — that government officials might coerce private citizens into participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies, or penalize them for their refusal to do so. But state and local governments have been taking action against Christians who decline to participate in these ceremonies on account of their religious beliefs."
Gay and straight Mississippi residents filed multiple lawsuits challenging the law, and U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked it from taking effect when it was supposed to in July 2016. He ruled that it unconstitutionally establishes preferred beliefs and creates unequal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
A panel of judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the hold on the law this year, saying people who sued the state had failed to show they would be harmed. The law took effect Oct. 10, and an appeal was quickly filed to the Supreme Court.
The law allows clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and protects merchants who refuse services to LGBTQ people. It could affect adoptions and foster care, business practices and school bathroom policies. Opponents say it also allows pharmacies to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions for unmarried women.
Susan Sommer is director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, one of the gay rights groups that challenged the Mississippi law. She said last month that the Mississippi law "creates a toxic environment of fear and prejudice."
"Along with other anti-LGBT laws across the country like those in North Carolina and Texas, these laws are a pack of wolves in sheep's clothing, dressing up discrimination and calling it religious freedom," Sommer said.