JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Faced with the threat of a federal lawsuit, Mississippi officials have relented on a ban on same-sex commitment ceremonies at a state-owned museum and are processing a permit for two women.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson on July 12, threatening to sue if officials didn't allow Ceara Sturgis, 20, and her partner, Emily Key, 19, to hold a ceremony there this fall.
Republican Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith said in a statement Thursday that same-sex ceremonies are against her religious and personal beliefs, but there's nothing in state law to block or prohibit them. She said the museum is processing the permit application, but there are several steps and it hasn't been finalized.
The museum had refused to allow the ceremonies in the past based on a 2009 opinion by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. The museum had said it interpreted commitment ceremonies to represent a union and that the 2009 opinion said it could ban the ceremonies because same-sex marriage is not legally recognized in Mississippi.
"I knew it was going to be a great day," Sturgis said in a telephone interview.
"I'm just glad that they said yes and now we can get into the planning. All we really know right now is that it's going to be in the fall," she said.
Sturgis said the decision is a victory for a lot of people, including those who reached out to her with stories about wanting to have a ceremony at the museum, but were afraid to try.
She also said that some people are confused and think she's trying to force the state to recognize her marriage, but all she wants to do is have a ceremony to profess her love to Key in front of friends and family.
Sturgis is not new to the fight for same-sex rights. In 2010, 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 sued 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.
Sturgis' mother, Veronica Rodriguez, said her daughter has been criticized as someone just looking for attention. She said they did want to bring attention to a policy of discrimination against same-sex couples.
"I love Emily and Ceara both and I'm so proud that they're so brave," she said.
In the museum case, Hyde-Smith said a letter from Hood's office in late July indicated the application for the same-sex ceremony could not be refused. The earlier opinion had been issued before Hyde-Smith was elected as agriculture commissioner.
The reasoning for the change from the 2009 opinion was not clear.
"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," Hood said in an emailed statement late Thursday. "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," Hyde-Smith said.
However, Hyde-Smith said if the permit is finalized, she will begin working with state lawmakers to come up with "clear and straightforward definitions" about what activities are allowed on state land.
Other officials also were critical of the decision to allow the ceremony.
"I am disappointed in the decision to allow a permit for same-sex marriage at a taxpayer-subsidized facility to be considered. Attorney General Hood's legal advice goes against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Mississippians," said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
The SPLC had said it would settle for nothing less than the state completely lifting the ban on gay ceremonies.
"Our clients are happy that they will have the opportunity to express their love for one another in front of their family and friends," SPLC lawyer Elissa Johnson said in a statement. "We are pleased that the museum has reversed its unfair and illegal policy, and affirmed that gay couples will be treated the same as heterosexual couples."
Sturgis told The Associated Press last month that she had gone 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.
Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum: http://www.mdac.state.ms.us/departments/museum/index.html