A federal judge in Mississippi issued a preliminary injunction last month preventing a religious-liberty law, just passed by the state legislature, from going into effect. The law, known as HB 1523, preserves the right of those with “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” about homosexual marriage to refrain from participating in or validating such marriages, provided their actions do not impede the ability of same-sex couples to marry. Calling the judge’s decision “extraordinarily misguided,” Richard A. Epstein explains his objections:
HB 1523 represents the kind of sensible accommodation that has long been the hallmark of religious liberty. . . . Judge Carlton W. Reeves struck down the Mississippi statute because he did not grasp the fundamental distinction between forcing others to yield to your beliefs and just asking to be left alone.
The new bill is intended to augment the state’s earlier Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed restrictions on religious liberties when they compete with “a government interest of the highest magnitude.” Traditionally, Epstein points out,
this language meant that the state could curb religious freedom in order to prevent riots in public places. . . . Not anymore. . . . [T]he argument has [now] commonly been made that the elimination of discrimination in all areas of American life counts as a compelling state interest, of course of the highest magnitude. . . .
Judge Reeves’s decision goes even farther, identifying the mere refusal of, say, a caterer to provide food for a gay wedding as doing “harm” to the couple—even if there are multiple other local caterers the couple could choose from. Such an “overbroad” definition of harm, according to Epstein, sets a precedent where any slight, real or perceived, against one individual could be cause to limit the rights of another.