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“Religious freedom” bills are sweeping through legislatures in dozens of states, giving bigots a license to discriminate. Lambda Legal is leading the fight to topple them, including one in Mississippi.


In 1970, as a young minister from Chicago who’d moved to Mississippi to join the civil-rights movement, he married two friends—Roger, a white man, and Berta, a black woman—in what was the state’s first legal interracial union. Only three years before, in the landmark Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court had struck down state laws—some of them claiming that racial separation was God’s plan—banning interracial marriages.

But despite that ruling, the county courthouse refused to issue Roger and Berta a marriage license. Barber’s friends took the case to a U.S. appeals court— and won.

“We’ve gone through a lot of struggles in this state to try to overcome racial bigotry,” says Barber, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, with Judy, his wife of 40 years. “And a lot of bigotry came from people who thought they were upholding religious beliefs.”

It still does. Rims was the lead plaintiff in Barber v. Bryant, the case in which Lambda Legal sought to strike down Mississippi’s HB 1523. This state law, enacted in April 2016, allows individuals and institutions with religious objections to block LGBT people from a variety of rights and services, including marriage licenses, jobs, housing, and adoption and foster-care services.

Its treatment of married same-sex couples flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land.

Met with protests in Mississippi and nationwide, HB1523 has been called the most anti-LGBT law in America. In October, an appeals court refused to hear a case challenging it, in which Lambda Legal is co-counsel. Now, Lambda Legal and other LGBT rights groups continue working to see how this unfolds.

“We can’t have a state law that says some people or their relationships aren’t legit,” says Barber, who, in his long pastoral career has performed marriages for interracial couples and for same-sex couples before their marriages were legal. He says individual workers have no right imposing their religious beliefs on settled law. “Why is a person even a marriage clerk,” he asks, “if they can’t follow their oath to uphold the Constitution?”

Mississippi’s law isn’t an isolated incident. Increasingly, nationwide, conservatives are using the premise of “religious freedom” to cut into existing LGBT and reproductive rights. And now it appears that the Trump administration, eager to stoke its far-right base, is helping them.

Late last year, the Supreme Court heard arguments from a Colorado baker who claims he had the right to deny making a wedding cake for a samesex couple because cakemaking is his “art” and he should not be forced by the government—Colorado has an anti-discrimination law—to express ideas that contradict his religious beliefs. Lambda Legal has filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the gay couple.

“It‘s like a movie where just when you think the zombie is dead, it rises up again—and you realize the fight's not over.”

Last June, Texas passed a controversial law that allows adoption agencies and other service providers to refuse to place a child with an LGBT family because of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The law could also impact people seeking birth control or abortion services.

In 2017 alone, laws with similar language were passed in five states—Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Dakota and North Carolina—and introduced as bills in dozens more.

In October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued legal guidance urging broad protection for “religious freedom” that could result in LGBT people, women and other groups unprotected from bias in federal programs.

It’s all backlash to recent gains in LGBT rights, says Camilla Taylor, Lambda Legal acting legal director. “The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to worship as they please,” she says. “But this is an effort to use the language of religious liberty as a justification for discrimination in the marketplace and by government officials, health care providers, employers and child-welfare providers.

“Courts long have upheld laws that prohibit such discrimination,” she continues. “But now organizations that have fought against equality for LGBT people for many years are attempting to reverse those precedents.”

Taylor says that there are obvious parallels between long-ago religious arguments against interracial marriage and current religious arguments against the marriages of same-sex couples. “But courts have always rejected claims that religious liberty trumps protections from discrimination,” she says.

Although the Supreme Court refused to hear Barber v. Bryant in early January, “we continue the fight in Mississippi, and are actively searching for additional plaintiffs to challenge the law,” Taylor says.

Meanwhile, she urged readers to speak up against proposed “religious freedom” laws in their states—and to urge their representatives to do so as well. (Follow these bills at lambdalegal.org/blog/topic/religious-exemptions.)

Taylor says she’s not surprised by the wave of anti-LGBT bills after Obergefell. “We won a thrilling victory and we expected this blowback,” she says. “It’s like a movie where just when you think the zombie is dead, it rises up again—and you realize the fight’s not over.”

Barber, who’s active with the social justice group Mississippi Human Services Agenda, says, “It’s frustrating to still be fighting this fight.” Along with many, he is waiting to see if the Supreme Court will take up the case. He’s hopeful that it will— and that it will rule against the law.

“I really wish I could just sit back and watch,” he says. “But I can’t. Justice requires that once you make the commitment, you do it until you die.”