WashU Expert: Mississippi ‘religious freedom’ bill unconstitutional

On April 5, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 1523, a controversial “religious freedom” bill, which says that the state government cannot punish public employees, social service providers and businesses that refuse to provide services to people because of a religious opposition.

The law is unconstitutional, said Elizabeth Sepper, associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and an expert
on legal issues surrounding religious liberty.


Sepper joined six law professors from Mississippi and New York who issued a joint statement against the new law.

Sepper and her colleagues argue that the law contradicts the religious freedom granted by the First Amendment by authorizing religious exemptions that would harm the rights of others and that fall disproportionately on single parents, unmarried women, and, in particular, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mississippians.

The statement says that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the government
from singling out any particular religion or belief to favor or disfavor.

“Since the Supreme Court decided Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, it has been understood that the Establishment Clause restricts legislative accommodations for religious beliefs where such accommodations would cause a meaningful harm to other private citizens,” the statement read.

The Missouri House is considering a similar bill, known as SJR39, which passed the Missouri Senate in March.

“Missouri should not join Mississippi in the new Jim Crow,” Sepper said. “SJR 39 solves a problem that doesn’t exist, and would do serious damage to equal citizenship and economic stability in the state.”