Alleged Anti-LGBT Discrimination Lands Mississippi Town in Federal Court

A Mississippi college town unceremoniously refused a permit for an LGBT pride event, despite strong support from the local community. Now two college students are suing on the grounds of discrimination.

Legal representatives of Mississippi State University students Bailey McDaniel and Emily Turner filed the lawsuit against the city of Starkville in federal court. Earlier in February, city officials voted 4-3 to deny a permit to hold the LGBT Pride event.

The aldermen who voted against the permit have refused to disclose their reasoning behind the denial, but the students allege that it boils down to anti-gay discrimination. Three other aldermen have gone on record to corroborate this claim, saying that the application “checked all the right boxes.” As a result, the lawsuit alleges unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

“The city banned plaintiffs from speaking in a public forum solely because it disagreed with the viewpoint and content of their speech,” the lawsuit states. “That hostility to their message was inextricably intertwined with hostility to their LGBT identity and pro-LGBT advocacy.”

The two students will be represented by Roberta A. Kaplan, who successfully petitioned the federal courts on behalf of client Edith Windsor  in a case that led to the dismantling of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In an interesting turn of events, Mayor Lynn Spruill has made clear that she supports the parade. Spruill does not get a vote on decisions like this, though. The city has said it is studying the lawsuit, but officials told the press that, prior to the vote, sixteen people spoke in favor of the parade, while only two opposed it. And that seems at odds with an alderman’s contention  that the vote reflected the opinion of constituents.

The Clarion Ledger provides background on apparent anti-LGBT animus from some of the aldermen who voted to block the parade:

 In 2015, aldermen repealed a resolution that made Starkville the first city in Mississippi to denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation. The same day, aldermen also repealed a city health insurance policy that allowed employees to ensure same-sex partners. Gay marriage was legalized later that year nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit says McDaniel and Turner were warned by an unnamed city employee who helped them fill out their application that they should keep LGBT-related content “under the radar” if they wanted approval from aldermen. All four aldermen who voted against the parade application also voted to repeal the two LGBT-related items in 2015 and have since been re-elected.

Putting this case in perspective

The right-wing media is trying to frame this incident as a story of the gay rights lobby bullying a small town, but that charge simply isn’t reflective of the facts as presented so far.

What’s really at issue is whether the aldermen applied a different standard for assessing the pride parade’s viability than they did for the 50 or so other events that have been approved. And if so, this constitutes viewpoint discrimination.

Currently, there are no federal laws that explicitly protect LGBT people from discrimination like this. However, the Obama administration repeatedly argued in the courts — with some success — that the Civil Rights Act and the Education Act ban sex discrimination and that, if we accept those protections, they must extend to LGBT people too.

Federal courts are still upholding this interpretation of the law, maintaining that, whether Congress meant to protect LGBT people or not — and, at the time these measures were passed, it certainly didn’t — the intent behind Title VII  and Title IX applies. Furthermore, to try to suggest that LGBT people should not be included in those protections infringes on their constitutional rights.

This suit seems to provide another strong test for that argument, or for an alternative legal argument: that LGBT people should be recognized as a particularly disfavored class. The community currently lacks that legal status, though marriage equality cases have seen the Supreme Court give LGBT identity closer scrutiny. And this case could prompt further exploration of that argument.

At any rate, this will be another important test for upholding LGBT freedom of speech and ensuring that anti-gay animus isn’t allowed to infringe on the community’s constitutionally protected rights.

Photo Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr

38 comments

Marie W
Marie W27 days ago

thanks

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Ellie M
Ellie M5 months ago

Noted

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DAVID fleming
Dave fleming5 months ago

Noted

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Just Human
Just Human6 months ago

The fact that these young people had wide support in a Mississippi community is encouraging. To the aldermen, you can't run things to fit your mindset. You must follow the law.

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Jim V
Jim Ven6 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim V
Jim Ven6 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jerome S
Jerome S6 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S6 months ago

thanks

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Karen H
Karen H6 months ago

Wonder how they'd react to Nazis marching in their streets.

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Leo C
Leo C6 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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