By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2012 12:09 PM ET
Same-sex couples will be allowed to hold commitment ceremonies at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum following the outcome of a demand from the Southern Poverty Law Center announced Thursday.
SPLC sent a letter to the museum and the state attorney general last month demanding that the institution repeal the policy or face a federal lawsuit. The group sent the letter on behalf of Ceara Sturgis and her partner, Emily Key, who wanted to hold a commitment ceremony at the state-owned and operated property but knew that it had previously refused to rent its facilities for such events.
“The Museum’s policy is premised on a misguided and erroneous interpretation of Mississippi state law and, further, violates the United States Constitution,” said the letter dated July 12. “We intend to challenge the Museum’s policy in federal court if the Museum does not rescind its policy against same-sex commitment and marriage ceremonies and honor our clients’ request.”
According to the letter, the museum had relied on a 2009 letter from Attorney General Jim Hood that said the venue may restrict use of its property to events that are “legal,” and therefore may “prohibit same gender marriages on museum property.” SPLC argued that while state laws may prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages, the laws do not prohibit same-sex wedding and commitment ceremonies, and blocking such events amounts to a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Further, a commitment ceremony or same-sex wedding ceremony does not require that the state recognize or endorse the committed same-sex couple as a married couple — indeed, under Mississippi’s current discriminatory laws, there are no legal consequences at all for the state when a same-sex couple declares their commitment to one another,” said the letter, which also included a request for use permit and a $350 payment.
The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith said a letter in late July from Attorney General Hood’s office indicated the application could not be refused, although the reasoning for the change was unclear. Hyde-Smith said that she “strongly objected” to the ceremony based on her “personal and religious beliefs,” but the state had no choice but to process the permit application. The permit is not yet finalized.
"The federal courts have clearly said that no state can prohibit any individual from using a state-owned facility to express his or her First Amendment rights," said Hood in an e-mailed statement reported by the AP. "To do so would place the state in serious legal jeopardy and result in Mississippi taxpayers paying the plaintiff's lawyers tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees. We may not like what the federal courts have decided, but it would have been a lost cause to fight the case."
"Based on my personal and religious beliefs, I strongly object to this, but I have no alternative, due to this advice, but to allow the processing of this permit to move forward," she said.
Sturgis received national attention in 2010 when her Mississippi high school left her senior portrait out of the yearbook because she wore a tuxedo in the photo. She sued the school district with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and reached a settlement.
“Emily and I are happy that we will be able to have our commitment ceremony in our ideal place,” said Sturgis in a news release from SPLC about her latest effort. “This victory for us will also pave the way for other same-sex couples who want to hold ceremonies at the museum.”