Written by Don Byrd

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, a controversial Mississippi law that shields religious objectors is set to go into effect October 10. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 12-2 not to revisit a panel ruling reinstating HB 1523, which shields businesses, individuals, and religious organizations for actions taken in accordance with certain religious beliefs, including the belief that “[m]arriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

The panel overturned a trial court decision that the law is unconstitutional because while certain religious beliefs are protected, “persons who hold contrary religious beliefs are unprotected.” The 5th Circuit denied a request to halt the law pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

HB 1523, also known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience Act, was signed into law in early 2016, despite the urging of civil and religious liberty advocates like the Baptist Joint Committee’s Holly Hollman, who encouraged the Governor to veto the measure.

At the time, she remarked:

[S]tandards in Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (which Mississippi already has) can protect religious freedom through a balancing test that weighs substantial burdens on religion against compelling interests of the government, without regard to any particular law or religious practice.  Specific exemptions should be carefully crafted to address foreseeable conflicts between a religious need and what the law is intended to achieve.

… In general, creating peremptory exemptions to protect majoritarian religious beliefs against minority interests does not promote religious liberty and actually harms the public’s long-term commitment to religious freedom by picking unnecessary battles.

Plaintiffs in the case challenging the law have announced an intention to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.