Mississippi law allowing denial of services to LGBT people is blocked by US judge

Judge blocks part of Mississippi LGBT marriage law
Judge blocks part of Mississippi LGBT marriage law

July 1 (Reuters) - A federal judge has blocked a Mississippi law intended to allow people who object on religious grounds to same-sex marriage and believe gender is determined at birth to refuse wedding and other services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves found late Thursday that the wide-ranging law adopted this spring unconstitutionally allowed "arbitrary discrimination" against the LGBT community, unmarried people and others who do not share such views.

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"The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others," wrote Reeves, who issued an injunction halting the law that was to take effect on Friday.

Mississippi is among a handful of southern U.S. states on the front lines of legal battles over equality, privacy and religious freedom after the U.S. Supreme Court last year legalized same-sex marriage.

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The state's "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" sought to shield those believing that marriage involves a man and a woman, and sexual relations should occur within such marriages. It also protected the belief that gender is defined by sex at birth.

By citing those three religious grounds, the law would have allowed people to refuse to provide a wide range of services from baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple to counseling and fertility services. It also permitted dress code and bathroom restrictions to be imposed on transgender people.

Reeves said the law violated the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection under the law by granting special rights to citizens holding certain religious beliefs.

The law "favors Southern Baptist over Unitarian doctrine, Catholic over Episcopalian doctrine, and Orthodox Judaism over Reform Judaism doctrine," he said.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed the measure into law in April. The state has defended it as a reasonable accommodation intended to protect businesses and individuals seeking to exercise their religious views.

"I look forward to an aggressive appeal," the governor said in a statement on Friday.

Critics say the Mississippi law is so broad that it could apply to nearly anyone in a sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage, including single mothers. Several legal challenges were filed against various aspects of the law.

Earlier this week, Reeves addressed a provision allowing clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples based on religious beliefs, saying they had to fulfill their duties under the Supreme Court ruling.

His ruling on Thursday came after religious leaders, including an Episcopal priest and a Jewish rabbi, last week testified in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that the law did not reflect their religious views. The judge also heard about its harmful potential from members of the gay community.

"As a member of the LGBT community and as minister of the Gospel, I am thankful that justice prevailed," said plaintiff Susan Hrostowski, an Episcopal priest. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien, Letitia Stein and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Toby Chopra and Frances Kerry)