Mississippi Religious Freedom Law Blocked, North Carolina Law Tweaked

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

July 8, 2016

A federal judge has blocked a controversial Mississippi law that would have allowed individuals and some public officials to deny services to members of the LGBT community. US District Judge Carlton Reeves issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law just minutes before it was set to take effect.

The law, HB 1523, had recognized the following sincerely held religious beliefs as meriting protection:

  • That marriage is between one man and one woman;
  • That people should not have sex outside of such marriages; and
  • That a person's gender is set at birth.

HB 1523 also protected individuals from litigation for speaking out against gay marriage because of their religious beliefs. But Judge Reeves viewed the law as a sweeping attempt to undermine the Supreme Court's 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.

In rejecting the Mississippi measure, Judge Reeves ruled that the law created a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He also wrote that HB 1523 "does not honor the tradition of religious freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi's citizens" because it favored some religious beliefs over others.

Major Mississippi employers had condemned the law, including Nissan, Toyota and MGM Resorts and Casinos. In addition, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association said the measure would violate many of its members' "corporate policies expressly providing for an inclusive workplace environment that supports diversity."

Supporters of HB 1523 have vowed to appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

North Carolina Law Also Being Challenged

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking an immediate injunction to block a North Carolina law that requires transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates in many public buildings. The DOJ claims that the measure, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (HB 2), violates federal civil rights law.

HB 2 nullified a Charlotte ordinance that gave new protections to transgender individuals who use public restrooms based on their gender identity. The law also included provisions:

  • Limiting the rights of employees to file suit for employment discrimination; and
  • Preventing local governments from passing their own antidiscrimination laws.

While the North Carolina General Assembly recently voted to restore workers' rights to file a court claim for wrongful termination, it does not provide any workplace protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Both supporters and opponents of the law have invoked employee privacy as a concern, with the state emphasizing public employee privacy while transgender rights advocates view the measure as infringing on the most private of workplace areas.