ACLU sues Miss. over pending ‘religious freedom’ law

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A battle is shaping up across the country over various pieces of legislation that proponents argue protects religious beliefs while others argue are tools to discriminate.

(CNN) — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Mississippi’s religious freedom law, which critics say will discriminate against gay and transgender people.

It was filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Mississippi, on behalf of Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, an engaged gay couple whom the ACLU says face discrimination as a result of the legislation.

The law, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

The ACLU argues it violates the U.S. Constitution and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide by “creating a separate and unequal set of laws applying only to the marriages of same-sex couples.”

However, state officials argue it does not conflict with federal law.

“The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived,” Bryant said upon signing the bill.

Bryant’s spokesman, Clay Chandler, said Monday that the ACLU was “trying to use the federal court system to push its liberal agenda” with the lawsuit.

“Instead of cherry-picking causes popular with the radical left, the ACLU should allocate its resources defending all civil liberties,” Chandler said in a statement.

Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage, adoption and foster care services; fire or refuse to employ them; and decline to rent or sell them property. Medical professionals will be permitted to refuse to participate in treatments, counseling and surgery related to “sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning.”

It allows vital-records clerks and their deputies to decline to issue marriage licenses because of “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” and also allows judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and their deputies to decline to perform them.

It also allows private businesses such as limousine drivers, deejays and bakers to refuse to provide services to gay couples.

The law, known as HB 1523, also permits employers and school administrators to dictate access to bathrooms, spas, locker rooms “or other intimate facilities and settings.”

“When HB 1523 passed, it was heartbreaking because it takes away our chance to finally be treated equally,” Alford and Thomas said in a statement issued by the ACLU. “At a time when we’re supposed to be excited as a couple engaged to be married, this law permits discrimination against us simply because of who we are. This is not the Mississippi we’re proud to call home.”

The law is one of several similar measures enacted in the United States in the year following the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

Last month, the Oxford, Alabama, City Council imposed criminal penalties for anyone who uses a public restroom that isn’t designated for their biological sex.

In North Carolina, a law requiring people to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender listed on their birth certificates has drawn the ire of transgender rights activists and the scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department, which says the law violates federal anti-discrimination laws. The state has sued the federal government over the government’s stance, calling it a “baseless and blatant overreach.”

CNN’s Devon Sayers and Elliot C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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