U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Reinstates Freedom of Conscience Law, HB 1523
Today, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” more commonly known as HB 1523.
Passed by the Mississippi legislature in 2016, HB 1523 is intended to limit government action against people who believe marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman. It provides protection for photographers, florists, and other wedding vendors who believe a wedding is a religious ceremony and that they shouldn’t be forced to participate in a ceremony that violates their deeply-help religious beliefs.
Today’s ruling did not address the merits of the law, including the question of its constitutionality. The ruling was limited to the question of whether the plaintiffs were qualified (known as “having standing”) to challenge the law in court. The Court said the plaintiffs did not have standing, because the law never went into effect and had caused them no injury except that they were offended by it. “Injury in fact,” not merely being offended by a law, is a prerequisite to having standing in federal court.
The court called the basis of the legal challenge “quite radical” because it would abandon long-held rules for standing which “are essential to preserving the separation of powers and limited judicial role mandated by the Constitution.” The Court also observed, “HB 1523 does nothing to compel the behavior of these plaintiffs; it only restricts the actions of state government officials.”
After HB 1523 was signed into law by Governor Bryant in April of 2016, it was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves on June 30, just minutes before it was to take effect. Attorney General Jim Hood refused to appeal that ruling, so Governor Bryant engaged pro bono counsel to represent him in appealing the decision.
Maine Governor Paul LePage and eight Republican attorneys general filed an amicus brief in support of the law. As they point out, “The law addresses marriage and does not even mention sexual orientation… HB 1523’s plain purpose is to protect individual rights to free expression and the free exercise of religion in our pluralistic society - a laudable goal that governments in this Nation have pursued since the Founding.”