Mississippi leaders divided on religious-beliefs law appeal

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's Democratic attorney general said Wednesday that he won't join the Republican governor in appealing a federal judge's ruling that blocked a state law on religious objections to gay marriage.

Attorney General Jim Hood said a continued legal fight would be "divisive and expensive" in a state that's already struggling with a tight budget.

"Simply stated, all HB 1523 has done is tarnish Mississippi's image while distracting us from the more pressing issues of decaying roads and bridges, underfunding of public education, the plight of the mentally ill and the need to solve our state's financial mess," Hood said in a statement.

Amid lobbying from Baptist and Pentecostal groups, the Republican-led Legislature passed House Bill 1523 this spring in response to last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the measure moments before it was to become law July 1. Gov. Phil Bryant last week asked Reeves to reconsider the ruling and to let the law take effect while Bryant appeals to a higher court.

The law sought to protect three beliefs: That marriage is only between a man and a woman; that sex should only take place in such a marriage; and that a person's gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.

It would allow clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and would protect merchants who refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It could affect adoptions and foster care, business practices and school bathroom policies.

Reeves found that it unconstitutionally establishes preferred beliefs and creates unequal treatment for gay people.

The attorney general's office represented Hood and Bryant in multiple lawsuits that challenged the law, but Hood himself didn't appear in court and never spoke forcefully in favor of it. Bryant will be represented on appeal by two St. Louis-based attorneys who are not charging for their work, the governor's spokesman Clay Chandler said Wednesday.

Bryant said in a statement Wednesday he is "disappointed the attorney general has abandoned his duty to defend the constitutionality of a duly enacted statute."

"This appeal is about the state's legitimate interest in protecting religious liberty — not political posturing about tax reform or the state budget," Bryant said. "Mississippi Democrats' failed policies have rendered them unable to win elections, so they have joined secular progressives in their attempts to legislate through the courts."

Bryant won a second term last year and can't seek re-election in 2019. Hood, the only Democrat holding statewide office in Mississippi, said last week that he doesn't know whether he will run for governor or seek a fifth term as attorney general in 2019. He said he could go into private practice.

A similar partisan rift between the Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general developed in North Carolina over a bill dealing with transgender people and bathrooms. Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill and Attorney General Roy Cooper refused to defend the law in court, saying it hurts North Carolina's economy. Cooper is challenging McCrory in the governor's race this year.

Hood said Wednesday that Mississippi has no law that would force clergy members to perform weddings for same-sex couples, and the state enacted a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2014 that would protect private businesspeople and others from violating their own beliefs.

"To appeal HB 1523 and fight for an empty bill that dupes one segment of our population into believing it has merit while discriminating against another is just plain wrong," Hood said. "I don't believe that's the way to carry out Jesus' primary directives to protect the least among us and to love thy neighbor."

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

 

 
 

 

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