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Lesbian couple refused use of facility for same-sex commitment ceremony

Sunday, July 15, 2012
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JACKSON, Miss. — A lesbian couple in Mississippi has been refused use of a state-owned museum facility that is routinely hired out for weddings and other functions because they are gay.

The Masonic Hall at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson was the “perfect venue,” according to Veronica Rodriguez, whose daughter Ceara Sturgis and her partner, Emily Key, wanted to celebrate their commitment ceremony there.

But the museum’s director, Charlie Dixon, indicated that although the facilities are hired out to heterosexual couples, the museum has a policy barring same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies.

Ceara Sturgis (left) and Emily Key

Dixon cited a 2009 letter from State Attorney General Jim Hood that states that the museum can limit the use of its facilities to events considered “legal” by state law — same-sex marriage is not legal in Mississippi.

On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent a letter to Dixon and Hood, demanding that the state end the policy or face a federal lawsuit.

Elissa Johnson, staff attorney for the SPLC wrote that the museum’s policy violates the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for viewpoint discrimination and differential treatment, respectively.

Allowing the ceremony does not compel the state to recognize the couple as legally married, the SPLC argued.

“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,” Rodriguez told local media. “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.”

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

Sturgis, 20, and her mother are no strangers to legal controversy over Ceara’s sexual orientation.

In 2009, then 17-year-old Sturgis wanted to appear in her high school yearbook and senior class photograph wearing a tuxedo, but the school officials balked. Rodriguez had said at the time, “The tux is who she is. She wears boy’s clothes. She’s athletic. She’s gay. She’s not feminine.”

The ACLU of Mississippi had sent a letter demanding school officials immediately cease violating her constitutional rights, writing “that such a requirement for gender-specific clothing is a violation of students’ rights to gender equality and self expression.”

Sturgis’ senior portrait was eventually left out of the Wesson Attendance Center yearbook.

The ACLU and the school district reached a settlement in that lawsuit, and the school’s students are now required to wear caps and gowns in senior portraits.

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