JACKSON — A gay rights group is getting another chance to challenge a Mississippi law that lets government workers and private business people cite their own religious beliefs to refuse services to LGBT people.
Legal experts say it’s the broadest religious-objections law enacted by any state since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves reopened a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the law signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016.
The law protects three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, sex should only take place in such a marriage, and a person’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.
Gay and straight Mississippi residents filed multiple lawsuits challenging the law, and 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 nation’s high court.
As another way to try to block the law, a gay rights group called Campaign for Southern Equality sought to reopen a lawsuit it filed in 2014 to challenge what was then Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage. Reeves ruled in favor of the plaintiffs for that lawsuit in late 2014, and the state appealed his decision. After the 2015 Supreme Court marriage ruling, Reeves closed the Campaign for Southern Equality case in Mississippi because same-sex marriage was legal in all states.
In reopening the 2014 case as a way for plaintiffs to challenge the religious-objections law, Reeves told them to try to identify how many clerks in Mississippi have denied marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples.
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 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender 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.
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