After Judge Carlton Reeves in Mississippi granted a preliminary injunction against HB 1523 and refused to let that state’s religious freedom law go into effect last month, Governor Bryant requested that the ruling be put on hold pending appeal. Judge Reeves refused to grant this request too, the other day declining to stay his ruling while the case is appealed. His opinion contains several weaknesses, and a failure to adequately address arguments in support of the law.
Judge Reeves claims that his opinion granting the preliminary injunction “laid out” why “HB 1523 is not like federal laws which permit persons to opt-out of going to war or performing abortions.” But that opinion did not adequately explain the distinction in the abortion context. He tried to argue that abortion dissenters have a problem with “all abortions,” while Mississippi clerks don’t have a problem with “all marriages licenses.” But it’s not for Judge Reeves to dictate whether someone’s conscience objections are correct. If someone has a guilty conscience, then they have a guilty conscience. Moreover, he still dodges the question of why conscience protections which only protect the pro-life view violate the Establishment Clause—which is the actual legal question anyway. The answer, of course, is that they don’t. In Harris v. McRae, the challengers to the Hyde Amendment (barring certain funding of abortions) had argued that it violated the Establishment Clause on the theory that it incorporated into law “the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the sinfulness of abortion and the time at which life commences.” The Court responded that “it does not follow that a statute violates the Establishment Clause because it ‘happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.’ … That the Judaeo-Christian religions oppose stealing does not mean that a State or the Federal Government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, enact laws prohibiting larceny.”
On top of inadequately addressing these arguments, Judge Reeves’ initial opinion failed to even mention “laws which permit persons to opt-out of going to war,” much less “la[y] out” why they are different from HB 1523.
Of course, the answer is they are not. Judge Reeves bafflingly cites to Gillette v. United States, but Gillette actually supports Governor Bryant’s case, standing for the proposition that laws which protect only one side of a certain area of beliefs are perfectly consistent with the Establishment Clause. Judge Reeves claims that “issuing a marriage license to a gay couple is not like being forced into armed combat or to assist with an abortion. Matters of life and death are sui generis.” But this isn’t the issue. Judges have no role in providing their personal opinion as to the matter being objected to. If the objector has a conscience problem, the inquiry stops there. This is well-settled under our constitutional religious freedom framework, and prevents judges themselves from being tangled up in assessing religious beliefs. To do otherwise leads to Judge Reeves’ error: judging the conscience of the objecting clerk. Who is he to tell that clerk otherwise if they believe same-sex marriage causes grievous harm and they don’t want to be a part of facilitating it?
Judge Reeves continues this error in a footnote: “Allowing conscientious objectors was a win-win: good for soldiers and good for conscientious objectors. HB 1523 is different. Allowing people to opt-out of serving LGBT citizens comes at the expense of LGBT citizens.”
Aside from continuing to err by assessing the value of the conscience objection in the military context, he is just flat wrong. He can’t show any “expense” on the part of LGBT citizens. He tries to point to Estate of Thornton v. Caldor to argue that laws which burden “other citizens and entities” are unconstitutional, but that case involved an actual requirement being placed on private citizens regarding their employment practices. There is NO such requirement here. HB 1523 merely protects certain people from the government. Our Constitution itself does that, and laws are perfectly constitutional when they accomplish the same.