SPLC wants Mississippi officials to end gay ceremony ban

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

JACKSON — An advocacy group said Thursday it is in discussions with state officials about lifting a ban on commitment ceremonies for gay couples at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to the Jackson museum on July 12, threatening to sue if officials don’t allow Ceara Sturgis, 20, and her partner, Emily Key, 19, to hold a commitment ceremony at the museum on Aug. 11.

The state-owned museum refused to allow a similar ceremony for two men in February. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, which oversees the museum, has cited a 2009 state attorney general’s opinion that says it can prohibit the ceremonies because gay marriage is illegal here.

Christine Sun, SPLC’s deputy legal director, said Thursday that “settlement discussions are continuing” and the parties will meet Aug. 9. Sun said state officials contacted the SPLC ahead of a Wednesday deadline it set in the letter.

“The SPLC will not accept anything less than a repeal of the policy banning gay unions at the Museum, but we are open to resolving this informally if we can get a good result for our clients,” Sun said in an email to The Associated Press. “As we’ve made clear, we will file a federal lawsuit if we can’t reach agreement.”

Andy Prosser, the deputy agriculture commissioner, said Wednesday that the department has no comment at this time and the matter is under review. He did not immediately respond to a message Thursday.

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.

Sturgis said recently 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.

Sturgis made headlines in 2010 when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Copiah County School District on her behalf. That suit claimed the Wesson Attendance Center discriminated against her by leaving her senior portrait out of the high school yearbook because she wore a tuxedo in the photograph.

The ACLU said the district discriminated against Sturgis on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes and 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.

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Online:

Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum: http://www.mdac.state.ms.us/departments/museum/index.html