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June 28, 2016

Court Warns Mississippi Legislature on Efforts to Circumvent Marriage Equality

Yesterday, a federal court gave Mississippi’s legislature a stern warning about its efforts to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.  The warning was made in the context of plaintiffs to a marriage-equality lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi to reopen their case in a challenge to HB 1523, the State’s so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” which goes into effect on July 1st.


Shortly after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, the District Court issued a permanent order making the marriage-equality ruling binding on the “… State of Mississippi and all of its agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries….”

Earlier this year, however, the State enacted HB 1523, which broadly allows Mississippians to deny goods or services to their fellow citizens based on their own “religious beliefs or moral convictions” that marriage is limited to opposite sex couples.  One HB 1523 provision empowers clerks and their subordinates to refuse issuance of marriage licenses based on this religious or moral viewpoint provided that “… marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  But the statute contains no protections to safeguard against impediments or delays.

The plaintiffs rightly argue that HB 1523 conflicts with the District Court’s permanent order, and are insisting that it be revised to fully protect their 14th Amendment marriage-equality rights.

In granting the plaintiffs’ request to reopen the case, the Court found that HB 1523 “… may in fact amend Mississippi’s marriage licensing regime in such a way as to conflict with Obergefell.”  Furthermore, it warned that State legislature that:

[T]he marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew every legislative session.  And the judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.

The plaintiffs’ request to the Court is part of a broader challenge to the constitutionality of HB 1523, which contains other provisions favoring particular religious or moral viewpoints, including limiting sexual relations to opposite-sex marriage and basing gender identity strictly on biological sex.   The law’s preferences are clearly inconsistent with the First Amendment’s free speech and establishment clauses.  Based on this court ruling, with its warning emphasizing judicial vigilance, there is reason to believe that the discriminatory HB 1523 will eventually be struck in its entirety.

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June 18, 2014

Honoring The Memory Of Murdered Civil Rights Workers

June 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who travelled to Mississippi for “Freedom Summer,” to help African American residents understand their constitutional rights and register to vote.  Facing deep institutional racism, fewer than five percent of the 500,000 black adults in Mississippi were then registered to vote.  Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, knew they were risking their lives for their cause. murdered-civil-rights-workers

On June 21, 1964, after they had investigated the burning of a black church, the three young men were reported missing.    Forty-four days later, their bodies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pretext traffic violation and the three had been arrested and held for several hours.  On their release, they were followed and murdered by members of the Neshoba Country Sheriff’s Department, Philadelphia Police, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When Mississippi prosecutors refused to press murder charges, federal authorities, led by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Doar, brought federal criminal civil rights charges – with mixed results:  seven of the 18 defendants were convicted, with sentences between three and ten years.  At the sentencing in December 1967, federal judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”  In 1999, a new generation of Mississippi law enforcement officials reopened proceedings, and in 2005 the State of Mississippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group.  ADL welcomed his conviction.

The murders in Mississippi in 1964 outraged the nation, providing additional momentum to propel passage of the comprehensive Civil Rights Act later that summer – and the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important, effective civil rights laws – the following year.

We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vigilance is necessary to retain that hard-earned progress.  In 2013, unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical VRA provision in Shelby County v. Holder.  The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an amicus brief.  Instead, a narrow Court majority eliminated the formula to determine which states must seek prior government approval for voting changes. The very day the decision was handed down, a number of states began enacting previously-blocked voter ID laws and redistricting measures.

Now, fifty years later, the League is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which Schw­er­mer, Good­man, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urg­ing broad sup­port  for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

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March 3, 2014

The Arizona Effect

Josh Deinert

AP Photo/Matt York

Last week Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the State’s now infamous “religious freedom” bill. 

The clear intent of the SB 1062 was to effectively allow persons and businesses to discriminate against the State’s LGBT community by providing a powerful legal defense based on assertion of a “sincerely held religious belief.” 

Due to its expansive nature, however, the legislation would have broadly sanctioned religious-based discrimination whether the victim was Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Hindu or of no faith.   And the Anti-Defamation took a leadership role in defeating this discriminatory legislation.

Governor Brewer ultimately vetoed SB 1062 under fierce pressure from the State’s civil rights and business communities.

But what happens in Arizona does not stay in Arizona.  Prior to Governor Brewer’s veto, at least twelve other states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma, were actively considering similar legislation.  Due to the backlash against SB 1062, however, Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, and Oklahoma tabled their bills.  So the new talking point in opposing such legislation should be “follow the lead of the Arizona legislature at your peril.”

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