By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Federal court decisions in three cases in the last weeks of June directly impact the work of the church in Mississippi. Federal Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the implementation of HB 1523, also known as the religious liberty law, hours before it was to go into effect Friday, July 1. Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a proposed law that would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Turning away the case means the last abortion clinic in Mississippi remains open. In the third case, a tie vote in the Supreme Court blocked a plan to protect millions of immigrants from deportation.
The coincidence that the rulings all came during Fortnight for Freedom was not lost on local church leaders. “The U.S. bishops set aside these weeks for us to reflect on threats to religious liberty and to celebrate our protected American freedoms,” said Bishop Joseph Kopacz. “There is a certain irony to the fact that these all happened during the fortnight,” he added.
The bishop released a statement relating to the religious liberty law and the abortion case on Friday, July 1. “We must strike a just balance between church and state, not just for our own protection, but for the protection of other faiths and society as a whole,” wrote Bishop Kopacz. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in its statement on religious liberty states “‘This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.’ Once the state begins to limit rights of people of one faith, we must be concerned for people of all faiths and beliefs,” he added.
The bishop has emphasized from the start of the HB1523 debate this is not an issue of whom the church serves, but how.
“The Catholic Church welcomes everyone in our parishes, schools and service centers. We have and will continue to help anyone in need through Catholic Charities, schools and parish ministries, regardless of your faith, beliefs or background. And we will continue to raise our voices both in our churches and in our communities in defense of human dignity and justice,” he wrote. The full text of his statement is available on page 9.
The religious liberty law was originally meant to protect religious organizations from violating their beliefs regarding marriage. The church sought exemptions from performing civil unions between gay partners, placing foster children or adopting children to gay couples and from being forced to hire people in ministry or education positions whose lifestyles contradicted church teachings. Lawmakers added a host of provisions to the original bill and critics called the resulting legislation discriminatory. Earlier in the year, Bishop Kopacz released a statement explaining the stance of the Diocese of Jackson on the issue.
“The Diocese of Jackson supported and would continue to support a religious exemption on behalf of the mission of the Catholic Church with regard to education and social services. We would like to continue to provide these services while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” said the bishop in April. “The diocese had no involvement in the other portions of the bill that addressed business and government operations. The church will continue to work to protect its First Amendment right to worship, to educate and to serve in the public domain while respecting the dignity of all citizens,” he continued.
State Attorney General Jim Hood said he would have to think ‘long and hard’ before filing an appeal. “I believe in the free exercise of religion and there will be a case in the future in which the U.S. Supreme Court will better define our religious rights. This case, however, is not that vehicle,” he said. Governor Phil Bryant, however, has called for an appeal.
In his ruling, Judge Reeves called HB1523 unconstitutional because, he says, it “grants special rights to citizens who hold one of three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” reflecting disapproval of lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons. That violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws.” He goes on to say the rights of religious institutions are already protected under the First Amendment and do not need an additional protection. Another part of his ruling calls HB1523 unclear in its instructions in too many cases to which it might be applied.
In the second case, a lower court had blocked a Mississippi law requiring doctors at abortion clinics to be able to admit patients at local hospitals. “We are saddened at this country’s insistence on abortion, the destruction of innocent lives, and the laws that have been passed to support this continued destruction,” said Bishop Kopacz. “The laws requiring doctors to have admitting privileges, although seen as a roadblock for abortion facilities, are in reality a commitment to the good health of all,” he added. There is only one abortion clinic left in Mississippi, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. For more on this case, see the related story on page1.
The final court action involves the work of immigrants’ rights advocates in Mississippi. Advocates have reported an uptick in law enforcement raids in Hispanic communities in the state since January and they expect those raids to continue so the center is stepping up its efforts to make sure immigrants know their rights. See page 8 for more on the ruling and what the Migrant Support Center is doing to address the rights of immigrants here. See related stories on page 8.
Bishop Kopacz said the church in Mississippi will continue to work for justice for all through political involvement and social justice outreach, especially on behaf of those on the margins of our communities while respecting the dignity of each person. “People of faith are called to be active in the political process – to protect the dignity of each human being and to make our communities stronger overall.”
By Maureen Smith