The Supreme Court Keeps Ducking Gay Rights Cases

REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to a Mississippi law Monday allowing government workers to refuse wedding-related services to LGBT couples on religious grounds.

The denial marks the third time this term that the high court ducked a gay rights challenge.

“We will keep fighting in Mississippi until we overturn this harmful law, and in any state where anti-gay legislators pass laws to roll back LGBT civil rights,” said Beth Littrell of Lambda Legal, a public interest law practice representing the plaintiffs. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision today leaves LGBT people in Mississippi in the crosshairs of hate and humiliation, delaying justice and equality.”

The Mississippi challenge falls within a broader category of cases that followed the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, which announced a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Red states and conservative legal groups tested the ruling’s reach in the months following Obergefell, pursuing measures that prohibit same-sex couples from collecting state marriage benefits or anti-discrimination law exemptions for religious objectors like cake bakers and wedding photographers.

Decisions in some of those cases are still pending.

At issue in the Mississippi case is HB 1523, a state law adopted in April 2016 allowing public employees to refuse participation in marriage-related services, such as the issuance of wedding certificates. The law also provides that the state may not take discriminatory action against religious organizations related to their wedding, adoption, employment or health care practices.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the law to take effect in June 2017, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they could not identify an entity that invoked the law against them.

The Court dodged two other LGBT rights controversies earlier this term.

In December 2017, the justices declined to review a Texas Supreme Court ruling which found that state and local governments may be able to deny marriage benefits to LGBT public employees. The Texas ruling only concerned whether the lawsuit can move forward, and was not a decision on the merits of the controversy.

That same month, the justices also passed on a case from Georgia which asserted that existing civil rights law protects gay workers from workplace discrimination. The plaintiff in that case, Jameka Evans, sued her former employer for discrimination, claiming that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBT employees. Evans, a lesbian, says colleagues and superiors discriminated against her for failing to conform to gender-based norms about sexuality, which contravenes the law’s ban on sex-based prejudice.

The denials in each case suggest that the Court has yet to reach a consensus about gay rights after Obergefell, and that disputes over LGBT rights may continue to feature prominently on its docket.

In a similar vein, the justices are currently resolving a case from Colorado, involving a Christian baker who declined to produce a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Unlike the Mississippi case, Colorado claims its public accommodation law requires the baker to provide wedding cakes to all customers, regardless of his religious beliefs.

A decision in that case is expected in June.


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