Federal court decisions in three cases in late June will directly impact the work of the Catholic Church in Mississippi.
On June 30, US District Court Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the implementation of H.B. 1523, also known as the Religious Accommodations Act, hours before it was to go into effect July 1.
Earlier that week, the US 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 the Obama administration’s plan to temporarily protect more than four million unauthorised immigrants from deportation.
The coincidence that the rulings all came during the US Catholic Church’s fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom June 21-July 4 was not lost on church leaders in the state.
“The US bishops set aside these weeks for us to reflect on threats to religious liberty and to celebrate our protected American freedoms,” said Jackson Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz. “There is a certain irony to the fact that these all happened during the fortnight.”
The bishop released a statement relating to the religious liberty law and the abortion case on 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.
Reeves issued an injunction barring Mississippi from denying same-sex marriage licenses. In his ruling, he called H.B.1523 unconstitutional because, he said, it “grants special rights to citizens who hold’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 said the law would value the belief systems of one faith over those of others. He also pointed out that he believes the rights of religious institutions are already protected under the First Amendment and do not need additional protection.
Bishop Kopacz emphasised from the start of the H.B. 1523 debate that it was not an issue of whom the church serves but how it serves.
“The Catholic Church welcomes everyone in our parishes, schools and service centres. 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 defence of human dignity and justice,” he wrote.
H.B. 1523 said the government could not prevent churches from refusing to marry a same-sex couple; faith-based employers from firing an individual whose “conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with those of the religious organisation”; or a private agency from blocking the adoption of a child because of religious beliefs.
Lawmakers added a host of provisions to the original bill and critics called the resulting legislation discriminatory against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
In a joint statement in March, Bishop Kopacz and Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi expressed support for the measure, saying it was consistent with similar protections afforded religious individuals and groups that “have been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court.”
“It would be detrimental to our church’s mission, as well as to the common good of our state, to be compelled to choose between our beliefs and our service,” the bishops said. They noted that Catholic Church services include adoption, foster care and care for unaccompanied refugee minors, and added that Catholic schools serve children of all faith traditions.
In a separate statement, Bishop Kopacz also pointed out that the Catholic Church “had no involvement” in provisions of the bill “that addressed business and government operations.”
State Attorney General Jim Hood told the Jackson Free Press newspaper 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. Hood said the potential cost of an appeal in the state, where budgets for social services have already been slashed, will play a big role in his decision.
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. The Supreme Court June 28 rejected an appeal of that ruling.
“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 Organisation.
The final Supreme Court was a 4-4 tie vote June 23 that leaves in place a lower court injunction blocking the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
In 2014, by executive order, President Barack Obama expanded a 2012 program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, known as DAPA.
The programs had been put on hold last November by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, upholding a Texas-based federal judge’s injunction against the executive actions. The original DACA program is not affected by the injunction.
In the Jackson Diocese, the Migrant Support Center run by Catholic Charities was already offering training to parish leaders on how to help immigrants in their communities take advantage of Obama’s immigration policies.
Obama’s policies could have granted protection to hundreds of migrant workers in Mississippi, but the high court’s tie vote halts the program.
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 centre is stepping up its efforts to make sure immigrants know their rights.
Bishop Kopacz said the church in Mississippi will continue to work for justice for all through political involvement and social justice outreach, especially to those on the margins of 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,” he said.