Politicians Duped Pastors, 'Churchgoing Public,' Says Mississippi Attorney General

Protesters seek repeal of a Mississippi law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples, transgender people and others on May 1, 2016, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

The day after Judge Carlton Reeves ruled against Mississippi HB 1523, the state’s attorney general said he wasn’t sure about filing an appeal. But Attorney General Jim Hood (D) was very clear about his opinion of the legislation.

“The fact is that the churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB 1523 protected religious freedoms. Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies,” Hood said in a July 1 statement.

“No court case has ever said a pastor did not have the discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason. I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man,” Hood added.

Those opposed to the law had argued HB 1523 was nothing but a menu of sanctioned methods of discrimination against LGBT people, single mothers, unwed couples and others.

Officially known as the “Religious Accommodations Act,” it would allow private businesses to refuse service to anyone based on the business owners’ religious background and beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Reeves, who also ruled against provisions of the legislation that were intended to stop same-sex marriage and adoption, decided that HB 1523 was blatantly unconstitutional. He said it violated the First and Fourteenth amendments by favoring one set of religious beliefs.

Those beliefs included: marriage should only be between one man and one woman, that sexual intercourse should only happen in such a marriage and that a person’s gender is assigned at birth and cannot be changed.

Reeves blocked part of HB 1523 a few days before his June 30 ruling by issuing an injunction to stop Mississippi from blocking same-sex marriage licenses.

“Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together,” Judge Reeves wrote. “But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It must be enjoined. The motions are granted.”

Reeves’ ruling came in response to several lawsuits that that were filed against HB 1523 immediately after Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed it into law.

Rob Hill, the Mississippi state director for the Human Rights Campaign, celebrated Reeves’ decision and called HB 1523 “indefensible legally and morally.”

“We are pleased to see it will not go into effect this week. We will continue to look toward a full repeal of the law, and pursue comprehensive legal protections for all LGBTQ Mississippians,” Hill added.

But Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said Judge Reeves was wrong.

“We felt like this was a good bill that focused on protecting religious beliefs, while also protecting the rights of the LGBT community,” he told the Clarion-Ledger.

Gov. Bryant was disappointed by Reeves’ ruling.

“Like I said when I signed House Bill 1523, the law simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law,” Bryant said. “I am disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality. I look forward to an aggressive appeal.”

Whether he gets that “aggressive appeal” is yet to be seen.

Hood said the Attorney General’s Office staff would evaluate Judge Reeves’ decision regarding HB 1523 and decide in the future whether to file an appeal.

“In consideration of the individual rights of all our citizens, the state’s current budget crisis and the cost of appeal, I will have to think long and hard about spending taxpayer money to appeal the case against me,” said Hood. “An appeal could cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Hood expects the U.S. Supreme Court to make a final determination regarding religious rights and how they affect topics like gay marriage and the rights of transgendered people.

“This case, however, is not that vehicle,” said Hood.