WashU Expert: Human rights at issue in Mississippi law

Act before court endangers 'fundamental rights to family life, marriage'

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has heard arguments on Mississippi HB 1523, which allows people with certain religious beliefs to refuse goods and services to LGBTQ and unmarried people.

The bill — scheduled to take effect July 1 — is a textbook example of an unconstitutional law, says a law and religion scholar at Washington University in St. Louis.


“In this act, Mississippi endorses only religious beliefs against same-sex marriage and against sex outside of marriage,” said Elizabeth Sepper, associate professor of law, whose scholarship examines the interaction of religious liberty and gay rights. “The state basically tells its citizens that these religious viewpoints, and no others, are the right ones.”

Sepper, along with seven other professors of law, signed an amicus brief on the appeal case involving the bill also called the Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act.

“Upholding HB 1523 would deeply damage religious freedom,” Sepper said. “Our long constitutional tradition prevents the government from promoting some religious beliefs and discriminating against others — a limitation that protects Americans of all faiths. With this law, instead, Mississippi takes a side in an ongoing religious debates over marriage, gender and sexuality between denominations and within churches. This discrimination against religious people prompted clergy and religious people to challenge this law in court, and the Fifth Circuit should side with them.

“As we say in our brief, the law ‘creates insiders and outsiders, whose rights vary significantly depending on whether they agree with Mississippi’s controversial creedal statements.’”

HB 1523 targets LGBT people, single parents and pregnant women for discrimination, Sepper said.

“Unlike other religious accommodations, the law sweeps across education, healthcare, family life and commerce,” she said. “Counselors in public schools could refuse to help pregnant teens. A religious university could fire a single mother working as a janitor, who supports her children on her own, because the university has a religious opposition to sex outside marriage. The fundamental rights of individuals to family life and marriage are at risk.”

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