JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Same-sex couples in Mississippi should not be left guessing whether any particular clerk will refuse to issue them marriage licenses, a gay rights attorney argued Monday in federal court.
Roberta Kaplan sued in 2014 to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage. She argued Monday against House Bill 1523 , which was signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in April and is set to become law July 1. It would let circuit clerks cite their own religious beliefs to recuse themselves from giving marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples.
Mississippi was one of several states where legislators debated or passed bills in response to last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Kaplan said gay or lesbian couples could face public humiliation if they prepare for a wedding only to be told that a clerk won't issue a license, or that a license is only available from a certain employee at a certain time or place.
"There can't be separate-but-equal marriage. There can't be Jim Crow kind of marriage," said New York-based Kaplan, who represents Campaign for Southern Equality and two lesbian couples.
Justin Matheny, an assistant state attorney general, said the bill specifies that clerks who recuse themselves must make sure someone else in the office will issue the license.
"It's on them," Matheny said.
Four lawsuits are seeking to block the bill from becoming law. The suits say the measure is unconstitutional. They contend it denies equal protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They also say it favors some religious beliefs over others.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves heard arguments Monday and will hear more Thursday and Friday.
The law would provide protection for people with three religious beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sexual relations should only take place inside such a marriage and that a person's "immutable biological sex" is determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.
It would allow clerks to cite religious objections to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Although it specifies that a clerk must make other arrangements for such a license to be issued, lawmakers didn't say during debates what would happen if every employee in a clerk's office in a particular county declined to issue licenses.
In addition to marriage licenses, the law could affect adoptions, business practices and school bathroom policies.
The bill says clerks or their employees who intend to recuse themselves from issuing same-sex marriage licenses must file notice with the state registrar of vital records. Matheny also said that as of Monday, no employee of any circuit clerk's office had filed a recusal notice with the registrar, Judy Moulder.
"She's not trying to hide any public records from anyone," Matheny said of Moulder.
Kaplan said people should not have to repeatedly file public records requests with the registrar to see if any recusals have been filed.
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