Emails: Group asked governor for religious objections order

AP News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2016 6:39 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Emails disclosed in a lawsuit over a blocked Mississippi law that protects religious objections to same-sex marriage show a Christian legal group asked Gov. Phil Bryant to institute the protections through an executive order in 2015.

The emails were filed in court this week by opponents who persuaded a federal judge to block the law before it went into effect. The plaintiffs say the emails show House Bill 1523 "improperly and unconstitutionally reflects the sectarian Christian values" of the Alliance Defending Freedom and other supporters.

Emails show the alliance also offered public relations advice to Bryant and drafted the statement the Republican governor issued explaining why he signed the bill into law. Bryant declined to answer questions from The Associated Press on Friday, sending only a statement.

"We appreciate the Alliance Defending Freedom working with the Legislature to draft House Bill 1523," Bryant said. "It is perfectly normal for our office to work with individuals and organizations, who have had a role in requesting and/or opposing legislation, during the bill review process to gather additional information."

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked the law less than an hour before it would have taken effect July 1. Bryant and Department of Human Services Executive Director John Davis are appealing, represented in part by the Washington, D.C.-based alliance, and have asked Reeves to let the law take effect in the meantime. Opponents have asked Reeves to leave his preliminary injunction in effect during any appeal, saying Bryant hasn't shown any proof his appeal will succeed.

"If allowed to go into effect, HB 1523 will cause sweeping harm to some of the most vulnerable members of society," wrote Roberta Kaplan, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

An email from Austin Nimocks, senior counsel with the alliance, suggested an executive order to Drew Snyder, Bryant's policy director and counsel, 10 days before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in Mississippi and nationwide.

"The main document is a model executive order that would prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views about or actions concerning marriage," Nimocks wrote, including a sample news release.

Much of the language from that proposal appears in HB 1523, including a section that seeks to protect actions motivated by three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman; that sex should only take place in such a marriage; and that a person's gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.

Outside groups often draft laws in Mississippi. University of Chicago researchers recently found that Mississippi lawmakers introduced more model bills from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council than legislators in any other state. Mississippi lawmakers also introduced the third-highest number of bills from the more liberal-leaning State Innovation Exchange.

Kaplan's filing also cites correspondence from the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which helped organize churches and other groups that supported HB 1523 in advance of the 2016 legislative session. The center also issued a poll showing support for the measure and suggested talking points that Bryant and other supporters cited.

The center's president, Forest Thigpen, said again Friday that his group conveyed the suggested language to legislative leaders.

"We work with national organizations on a regular basis, and we knew there was a model bill that had been developed," Thigpen said, saying it's common for his group to be a "resource for legislators."

Thigpen said it's "ridiculous" to allege that a religious motivation is somehow invalid in drafting legislation.

Kellie Feidorek, a lawyer with the alliance who helped write the signing statement and offered public relations advice to Bryant, said the plaintiffs should not be able to exclude people whose views aren't in "lockstep" with theirs from influencing policy.

"That is a chilling proposal for the diversity we cherish in public life," she said Friday.

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