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Mississippi Gov. Bryant Loses Appeal of Religious Accommodations Stay

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)

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is using a legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., to do what his state’s attorney general will not do. Together with the Alliance Defending Freedom, Bryant is waging a court battle for HB 1523, the Religious Accommodations Act.

So far, Bryant and the ADF are losing.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves again refused to allow HB 1523 to become law Aug. 1.

Reeves first blocked Mississippi’s HB 1523 from becoming law June 30.

“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. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens,” Reeves decided. “It must be enjoined.”

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Reeves’ ruling was “clear and straightforward.”

“The court quotes statements made by legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor. The court found that those statements, along with the inclusion of the term ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ and the definition thereof in HB 1523, were strong evidence that the law was unconstitutional,” Hood said in a statement.

Hood also said as PJM reported in July, “The churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB 1523 protected religious freedoms.”

But Gov. Bryant (R) vowed to continue fighting for HB 1523, legislation that he maintained will protect the religious liberties of business owners and some public officials who don’t want to serve the LGBT community, with or without the assistance of his state’s attorney general.

Bryant and those in the Mississippi Legislature who backed the bill said it was a way to protect religious freedom following the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.

The Commercial  Appeal reported that Reeves said in his Aug. 1 decision not to lift his order blocking HB 1523 that it didn’t make sense to let the law go into effect until its constitutionality had been decided.

“HB 1523 is not like federal laws which permit persons to opt-out of going to war or performing abortions,” Reeves wrote. “In this case, the public interest is better served by maintaining the status quo — a Mississippi without HB 1523.”

Reeves also weighed in on the side of those who have said HB 1523 would damage Mississippi’s economy.

“To the extent the preliminary injunction will help alleviate the damage wrought on this State by an HB 1523-caused economic boycott,” Reeves wrote, “moreover, that too supports denying a stay of the injunction.”

“They started this fight,” the AP reported Gov. Bryant told an audience at a county fair in Philadelphia, Miss.

Bryant also said that he was only trying to carry out the “will of the people” by refusing to let the religious freedom bill die a judicial death, “and “we will continue to do so.”

While Attorney General Hood has refused to defend HB 1523, it should not be assumed that Bryant is waging this fight alone. He has legislative support.

“We operate based upon convictions. We don’t need a poll to tell us that we need to fight for your religious liberty,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn (R), standing with Bryant at the Neshoba County Fair.

Alliance Defending Freedom served as co-counsel for the appeal.

“Mississippi’s law was crafted to respect a diversity of beliefs and to protect the freedom of Mississippians to peacefully live and work according to their religious or moral beliefs about marriage,” said ADF legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek. “The law simply ensures that the government does not discriminate against churches and other organizations such as adoption agencies, schools, and charities for following their deeply held beliefs.”

New York-based attorney Roberta Kaplan, who filed one of two lawsuits asking Judge Reeves to block HB 1523, said the ADF did more than provide legal assistance to the religious freedom legislation in Mississippi.

The Jackson Free Press reported she argued the ADF helped write the bill.

And, if that was true, Kaplan concluded that the ADF’s involvement proves the Religious Accommodations Act was not about civil rights – it was, as its name would imply, all about religion.

Gov. Bryant told reporters he doesn’t see what difference the ADF’s involvement makes. He announced on Facebook that Hood’s refusal to sue left no other option.

“I’m obviously disappointed he has abandoned his duty to defend the constitutionality of a duly enacted statute,” Bryant wrote on his Facebook page. “I have engaged nationally recognized appellate attorneys, at no cost to the taxpayers of Mississippi, to appeal the district court’s ruling.”

And those attorneys were from the ADF. Bryant stressed at the Nebosha County Fair that he didn’t see why that was a problem.

“They get so excited because they say, ‘You know the governor and the Legislature, well, actually they had some contact with some religious organizations,'” Bryant said. “Yes, yes we did. We do that quite often. As a matter of fact, I reach out to the American Family Association, the Alliance for Defending Freedom. I’ll continue to do so.”