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Jackson, Miss. • U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves late Thursday night issued an injunction blocking a bill by the Mississippi legislature that would have allowed private citizens and some public officials professing a "sincere religious belief" to deny services to gays and lesbians.
Just minutes before House Bill 1523 was to take effect at midnight, Reeves eviscerated the bill - the most sweeping attempt by a state to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage - as being in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
"The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others. Showing such favor tells 'nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and . . . adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.' " Reeves wrote, citing precedent. "And the Equal Protection Clause is violated by HB 1523's authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons."
"The plaintiffs' motions are granted and HB 1523 is preliminarily enjoined."
Coupled with a ruling Reeves filed earlier in the week - preventing circuit clerks from denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples - the proposed law is, for the moment, stillborn.
The preliminary injunction will hold until any appeals are completed. Then, if upheld, they will be filed as permanent injunctions.
"The federal court's decision recognizes that religious freedom can be preserved along with equal rights for all people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation," Robert McDuff, attorney for one of four groups to file suit against the bill.
Reeves' decision comes 20 months after he struck down Mississippi's statutory and constitutional bans against same-sex marriages. It comes three months after U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Porter Jordan III, in the same Jackson courthouse, struck down the state's ban against gay couples adopting children.
Taken together, the three rulings - from judges appointed by George W. Bush and by Barack Obama - compose a devastating, Civil Rights-era style rebuke by the federal government against the former Confederate state long viewed as having the nation's most violent and oppressive history in dealing with African-Americans and other minorities.
Roberta Kaplan, the New York-based attorney who represented plaintiffs in both the adoption case and HB1523, invoked the state's racially segregated history in hearings in late June as a comparison to the proposed law.
"There can't be separate but equal marriage," she told Reeves. "There can't be Jim Crow kind of gay marriage in the state of Mississippi."
Reaction from state leaders was not immediately available when the ruling came down just before midnight. None of the state's top three officials posted statements on their social media accounts.
But Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (no relation) had said earlier in the week that he hoped the state would appeal the judge's initial injunction.
"If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice their religion, then all Mississippians are denied their First Amendment rights," he said in a statement. I hope the state's attorneys will quickly appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of all Mississippians."
Reeves, the judge, ripped into that logic in the conclusion of his 60-page opinion.
"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," he 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 bill, officially titled as the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," was authored by state House Speaker Philip Gunn, R. After the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage, Gunn said the ruling was an overreach of judicial authority and "in direct conflict with God's design for marriage as set forth in the Bible. The threat of this decision to religious liberty is very clear."
His resulting bill easily passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Gov. Phil Bryant, R, enthusiastically signed it April 5.
It sought to protect Mississippians who had three specific religious beliefs: That marriage was between one man and one woman, that sex is reserved for heterosexual married couples and that gender is determined at birth. Court clerks would be allowed to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples by asserting a religious offense. A single mother could be fired from her job. Any private business owner could refuse service to anyone they perceived to be gay by citing the above religious beliefs.
Local, national and international outrage ensued.
Mississippi offers no discrimination protections to gay and lesbian citizens. Its ban on adoptions by same-sex couples was the last in the nation. And in 2004, when 11 states passed referendums barring same-sex marriages, Mississippi voted the most vehemently against it, at 86 percent.
So, although there have been no reported problems in the state with same-sex marriage licenses being issued since the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell last year, the proposed bill hit a nerve.
"The fear is greater here than in other places," says Paloma Wu, legal director for the state American Civil Liberties Union, who filed one of the challenges against the bill.
State business leaders decried it, newspaper editorials railed against it and non-profits, activists and individuals - gay, straight and transgendered - filed suit.
In a further symbol of change, Reeves, the judge hearing the case, is an African-American who grew up in tiny Yazoo City and was born in 1964. He obtained his undergraduate degree at Jackson State University, a historically black institution a few blocks from the Capitol building, and was eventually nominated to the bench in 2010 by the nation's first black president.
His rulings on gay marriage have stymied the most powerful politicians in the state - all white men who grew up here, like he did, in the waning days of segregation.
Joseph Murray, a New Jersey native and once a lawyer for the ultra-conservative American Family Association based in Tupelo, later came out as gay. He married in Mississippi last year (without incident), practices law in Ripley (pop. 5,000), but also counts himself as a devout Catholic and Trump supporter. He recently wrote a commentary for the Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper, mocking Republican state leaders for being "obsessed" with homosexuality.
"The politics are just so blatant (in the legislature)," he said in an interview. "This bill, it's the death throes of the religious right that doesn't know what to do with itself now that it's lost, and lost miserably. They took all those $5 and $10 donations from little old ladies, and what have they got to show for it?"