HB 1523 a waste of focus and money
There was little doubt how a federal judge would rule on a Mississippi law enacted in protest to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves did exactly as expected, ruling that a major part of the law — to allow circuit clerks and their assistants, based on religious objections, to decline to issue marriage licenses to gay couples as well as those who have had sex outside of marriage — is unconstitutional and prohibited it from taking effect on Friday.
The judge still has to rule on other questionable parts of House Bill 1523, including one that tries to regulate the public bathrooms that transgender individuals use.
The Republican leadership in Mississippi that pushed for House Bill 1523 should stop wasting the state’s time and money on it. Unfortunately, its initial reaction to Reeves’ ruling does not appear to be the case, as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, no relation to the judge, encouraged the state’s attorneys to appeal the decision to a higher court.
Mississippi can disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court about gay marriage, but the fact remains it is the law of the land unless the high court reverses itself or the nation passes a constitutional amendment to define marriage. Neither of those courses appears likely.
Thus, as Carlton Reeves ruled, Mississippi must make no distinction, when it comes to issuing marriage licenses, between gay couples and straight ones. The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution prohibits such disparate treatment.
There have been cases where religious objections of workers have been upheld by the federal courts, but those decisions say that such religious objections only have to be accommodated when they are reasonable in scope and when they don’t create an undue burden for others trying to exercise their constitutionally protected rights.
In the case of House Bill 1523, it failed to meet that test. There were possible scenarios, unaddressed in the bill, where an undue burden could occur. For example, the bill says that even if clerks object to same-sex marriage, they have to somehow work out a way for licenses to be issued to gay couples. However, there is no explanation in the law of what would happen if all those who worked in a circuit clerk’s office objected, or if those clerks who did not object were out when a gay couple came to the courthouse to apply for a marriage license.
Mississippi lawmakers have used gay marriage and other hot-button issues to pander to the public and distract it from more pressing issues, such as underfunded education, deteriorating highway infrastructure and a sluggish economy. Several lawmakers from both parties are saying they are tired of it.
So is obviously the judge. The GOP leadership should listen to his admonition that “the marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew after every legislative session.”
House Bill 1523 was unnecessary and has only created public relations problems for the state, again reinforcing a negative stereotype of a place that digs in its heels as the world changes.
It would be a helpful if we stopped being our own worst enemy.
Editor and Publisher