Sunday, June 25, 2017
Fifth Circuit Says "Stigmatic" Harm Isn't Enough for Standing to Challenge State Opposite-Sex "Anti-Discrimination" Measure
The Fifth Circuit ruled last week that a group of plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge Mississippi's law that bans discrimination against those who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. The court said that the plaintiffs pleaded only "stigmatic" harm, not concrete and particularized harm, and that this wasn't enough to get into federal course.
Mississippi's provision bans state "discriminatory action" against those whose "religious beliefs or moral convictions" say that marriage is a union between only one man and one woman. It applies to religious organizations when they make decisions regarding employment, housing, placement of children in foster or adoptive homes, or the "solemnization of a marriage based on a belief listed" in the provision. It also applies to parents if they raise their foster or adoptive children in accordance to the belief covered by the provision. And it applies to doctors, mental health counselors, and businesses that offer wedding-related services. The statute creates a private right of action for individuals for any violations by state officials and allows its use as a defense in private suits over conduct covered by the statute.
The plaintiffs are residents of Mississippi and two organizations (a church and a secular non-profit) that do not share the provision's belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman. They argued that "they are injured by the 'clear message' sent by [the provision] that the 'state government disapproves of and is hostile to same-sex couples, to unmarried people who engage in sexual relations, and to transgender people." They claimed that the provision violated the Establishment Clause and equal protection.
The Fifth Circuit tossed the case for lack of standing. The court said that the plaintiffs asserted only "stigmatic" harm, not concrete and particularized harm, and that the "stigmatic" harm simply wasn't enough to get into federal court. (The court held that the plaintiffs' asserted harm was nothing like the actual and concrete "exposure" harm in the monument, display, and prayer-at-football game cases. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that their case was just like the plaintiffs' case in Romer v. Evans, because the Romer Court didn't address standing, and lower courts therefore can't use it for that purpose.) The court also rejected the plaintiffs' theory of taxpayer standing (based on Flast v. Cohen), because the government hadn't yet spent money in support of the provision.
The ruling ends the case and leaves Mississippi's statute on the books--for now. Under the ruling, a viable challenger will probably have to wait for a concrete and particularized harm (discrimination) at the hands of a person or organization who falls within the protection of the provision, sue that person or organization, and argue that the provision violates the Constitution when the defendant raises it as a defense.