By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
JACKSON — A lesbian who sued her school district in 2010 after she was left out of the high school yearbook for wearing a tuxedo is demanding the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum permit a commitment ceremony for her and her partner.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to the museum on Thursday on behalf of Ceara Sturgis, 20, and threatened to sue if the facility doesn’t allow Sturgis and her partner, 19-year-old Emily Key, to hold the ceremony there on Aug. 11.
The letter said Sturgis and her mother, Veronica Rodriguez, are both from Jackson and want the ceremony at the museum’s Masonic Hall so friends and relatives can attend.
The state-owned museum refused to allow a similar ceremony for two men earlier this year.
The museum has said it interprets commitment ceremonies to represent a union and cites a 2009 opinion by Attorney General Jim Hood saying it could decline such ceremonies because same-sex marriage is banned in Mississippi.
Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith said Thursday that she was out of the office and had not seen the letter.
The SPLC is not challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage, but says the museum should allow commitment and marriage ceremonies to take place even if the couple won’t be recognized under state law.
“The Museum’s policy is premised on a misguided and erroneous interpretation of Mississippi state law and, further, violates the United States Constitution. 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,” the letter said.
Sturgis told The Associated Press Thursday that she went to a friend’s wedding at the museum and liked it, so she thought it would be the right place for her and Key to publically profess their love. She said they’re not asking the state to recognize them as a married couple, but they just want to be able to rent the venue for a celebration like a heterosexual couple could.
“Emily and I just want to have the same fair treatment as everyone else. We want to share our love with our friends and family,” Sturgis said.
The SPLC is giving museum officials until July 25 to make a decision and will file a federal lawsuit if the facility doesn’t allow the ceremony, said Elissa Johnson, an SPLC attorney.
“It is unfair and illegal for the state to refuse to rent its facilities to couples based solely on their sexual orientation,” she said.
Sturgis made headlines in 2010 when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Copiah County School District on her behalf, claiming the district discriminated against Sturgis on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes.
Sturgis’ senior portrait was left out of the Wesson Attendance Center yearbook because she wore a tuxedo in the picture. The ACLU and the school district reached a settlement to that lawsuit. Now all students are required to wear caps and gowns in senior portraits. The ACLU has also said the agreement called for a picture of Sturgis in the tuxedo to be added to her class composite picture hanging in the school library.
Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum: http://www.mdac.state.ms.us/departments/museum/index.html