By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Tupelo, Lee County and Natchez Trace facilities are available to same-sex couples, if they wish to use them for events such as commitment ceremonies.
Thursday, the Mississippi Agricultural & Forestry Museum in Jackson announced it lifted its ban on permitting such events under the threat of a federal lawsuit.
In Tupelo, city-owned facility policies do not restrict who can rent them, although criminal activity is banned, said City Attorney Guy Mitchell III.
Certain other restrictions and fees apply, he said, but facilities generally are available for use by the public.
While same-sex marriage is not recognized as valid in Mississippi, it is granted in six states, in addition to Washington, D.C., and two Native American tribal jurisdictions. Maryland and Rhode Island recognize the marriages from other jurisdictions but do not perform them.
Mississippi law does not ban public facilities’ use based on sexual viewpoint.
Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center pushed for the Ag Museum approval of a same-sex couple’s “commitment ceremony,” not a wedding, saying that because the state-owned facility allows the general public to use its facilities, it may not discriminate against speech or expressive conduct because of an applicant’s viewpoint.
Gary Carnathan, longtime attorney for Lee County, said Friday he’s not aware of any county ordinances prohibiting same-sex ceremonies at county facilities.
And ditto for the federal Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs through Lee County. “We treat every application the same for any event,” said Parkway Superintendent Cameron Sholley.
In a July 12 letter, SPLC also told the Jackson facility refusal to rent to the couple violates the 14th Amendment, which prohibits singling out a class of citizens for different treatment, absent a valid state interest.
These legal issues are similar but not the same as under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.
“The issue is how much protection does a same-sex couple receive from discriminatory legislation,” said George Cochran, a constitutional law expert at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law.
“Mississippi must come up with a legitimate basis for distinguishing between heterosexual and same-sex couples in denying access,” Cochran noted, other than, in the words of then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group.”
Thursday, when Ag Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith revealed her policy change to the Daily Journal, she said that despite her feelings against allowing the same-sex ceremonies, she was presented no state law prohibiting the activity.
Attorney Gen. Jim Hood, who advised Hyde-Smith on the legal issues, said federal courts repeatedly have prohibited such facilities bans, and to challenge precedent “would place the state in serious legal jeopardy” and cost taxpayers 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,” Hood said.
Other leaders like Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves expressed their “disappointment” with the decision to lift the Ag Museum ban.
They also left open the possibility of hiring a private attorney for additional legal advice.