SPLC demands Miss. Agriculture & Forestry Museum repeal anti-gay policy

Ceara Sturgis and her same-sex partner, Emily, have a simple wish: They want their family and friends to attend their commitment ceremony at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum.

But the state-owned museum’s unlawful policy of refusing to rent its facilities to same-sex couples for commitment and wedding ceremonies threatens to deny that wish.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter today to the museum and the state’s attorney general demanding that the museum immediately rescind its policy or face a federal lawsuit. Museum representatives have until July 25 to advise the SPLC and its clients of its position.

“Our clients simply want to have the opportunity to express their love for one another in front of their family and friends,” said Elissa Johnson, a staff attorney for the SPLC. “It is unfair and illegal for the state to refuse to rent its facilities to couples based solely on their sexual orientation.”

Ceara Sturgis and her partner, Emily
Sturgis and her mother, Veronica Rodriguez, are both from Jackson and wish to hold the ceremony at the museum’s Masonic Hall this fall so that family and friends in the area may attend. The museum is owned and operated by the state and has previously refused to rent its facilities for same-sex wedding and commitment ceremonies on the basis that such ceremonies violate state law.

“We love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together,” Sturgis said. “Like any other couple, we want to be able to share this special day with our family and friends.”

To support its policy, the museum cites a 2009 letter from Attorney General Jim Hood expressing his opinion that the museum may restrict use of its property to events that are “legal” under state law and, therefore, may “prohibit same gender marriages on museum property.”

But the letter warns the museum that it has no legal basis for denying same-sex couples the use of its facilities for such ceremonies. The museum routinely rents its facilities, including the Masonic Hall, to heterosexual couples for weddings, wedding rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions. It must make the facilities available to same-sex couples as well. The letter states that, “the Museum’s refusal to rent the same facilities to same-sex couples for the same purposes constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”

The letter also notes that the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, because under the 14th Amendment, a state may not single out a class of citizens for different treatment, absent a valid state interest. A commitment ceremony or same-sex wedding ceremony does not require that the state recognize or endorse the committed same-sex couple as a married couple.

“As a mother, I have dreamed of giving my daughter the wedding that she desires and I want her to be able to get married in her hometown in front of our family and friends,” said Rodriguez. “We are not asking Mississippi to recognize Ceara and Emily’s relationship, although it should. We are just asking that they have the opportunity to hold a ceremony in a public place – the same as other couples.”

Other attorneys signing the letter include Jody E. Owens, II, and Christine P. Sun of the SPLC and Alysson Mills of Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, L.L.P. in New Orleans.

The SPLC is dedicated to defending the rights of the LGBT community. Along with protecting the rights of LGBT adults, the SPLC has worked to ensure a safe and respectful learning environment for all students – including LGBT students – through educational campaigns and legal action.