Gay parade permit sparks major debate in Mississippi
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — At first, the plan to hold a gay-pride parade here didn't seem like such a big deal. Such festivals aren't that unusual even in the traditionally conservative Deep South, and Starkville, "Mississippi's College Town," made a name for itself as the first community in the state to pass a resolution denouncing discrimination against people for sexual orientation.
But when organizers applied for a permit, they ran into a roadblock: A majority of Starkville's aldermen voted it down, transforming what had been envisioned as a relatively small-scale event into a constitutional confrontation over free speech and equal rights.
A successful gay-rights lawyer representing the event planners says there is no question she'll sue. The aldermen aren't explaining their decision earlier this week to vote down the permit, but at least one indicated he was acting on behalf of what the larger community wanted.
"I was elected to represent the constituents and the majority of the constituents from my ward have been supportive of this," Alderman Ben Carver was quoted by The Commercial Dispatch as saying in a story published Friday.
Alderman Roy Perkins was not as forthcoming.
"All I can tell you is I have no comment. Two words: No comment," Perkins told The Associated Press on Thursday. Perkins was the one who moved to reject the application, and alderman approved his proposal on a 4-3 vote.
Like Perkins, two other aldermen who voted against the permit declined to comment to the AP.
Parade organizers have hired Roberta Kaplan, a well-known attorney who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2013 that extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples.
"We absolutely intend to sue," Kaplan said. "We think that grounds are extremely strong. We intend to do so extremely promptly."
Kaplan is no stranger to Mississippi. She has litigated other gay-rights cases in the state, including a challenge, thus far unsuccessful, to a law that lets some government workers and business people cite religious objections to refuse services to LGBT people.
Opposition to the parade wasn't entirely unexpected in Starkville, a town that is in many ways still caught between the old South and the new.
A city of 25,000 about 110 miles (175 kilometers) northeast of the state capital of Jackson, Starkville is mainly known as the home of Mississippi State University. Southeastern Conference football rivals for years poked fun at the town as a distant, dull backwater. They dubbed it StarkVegas, the joke being that it was the polar opposite of Las Vegas. But Starkville grew and changed. Now a four-star restaurant shares Main Street with the plate lunches of the Starkville Cafe, and a mosque settled in among the Baptist churches.
The engine of Starkville's transformation is Mississippi State. The school's focus on agriculture and engineering is seemingly unthreatening to Mississippi's conservative values, but it brings in plenty of people with new ideas. Among those is Bailey McDaniel, a senior criminology major at the university and the organizer of Starkville Pride weekend.
"I was trying to plan a pride parade before I left so a community that I had been a part of for four years could have a celebration," said the 22-year-old McDaniel, who grew up in Corinth in Mississippi's northeast corner and plans to attend law school. She identifies as lesbian.
In 2014, Starkville became the first community in Mississippi to pass a resolution denouncing discrimination against people for sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Later that year, aldermen allowed city employees to insure not just spouses, but other adults who lived with them. With same-sex marriage still banned in Mississippi, that meant city employees could insure same-sex partners.
But some aldermen later balked, claiming then-Mayor Parker Wiseman sneaked the insurance policy through without explaining the impact. Wiseman vetoed one attempt to overturn it. Months later, however, a veto-proof group of five aldermen, including the four who voted against the parade permit Tuesday, repealed the insurance policy and the anti-discrimination resolution.
For Mayor Lynn Spruill and the three aldermen who supported the parade application, the rejection is a self-inflicted black eye and distracts from progress.
"I think it creates a view of the city of Starkville of being non-inclusive and I happen to think we are an inclusive community," Spruill said. "We value diversity."
Rachel Allison, a sociology professor at Mississippi State who has been supporting McDaniel and Turner, described the parade permit as "kind of a litmus test."
McDaniel, one of 16 people who spoke in favor of the parade at the city meeting Tuesday, said she tried to look aldermen in the eyes as she addressed them, but they wouldn't look back.
"They wouldn't speak; they wouldn't make eye contact; they looked ashamed, but they still did it," McDaniel said.
Some areas residents said they agreed with the rejection, citing Christian teaching that homosexuality is sinful.
"It's an abomination in the sight of the Lord," Albert Friddle of nearby Ackerman said Thursday as his daughter loaded groceries into their van outside a supermarket. "The government has given them too much already. There shouldn't be allowed to be a parade for that."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that while authorities can regulate a parade or march, they can't wholly deny permits, saying that infringes on free-speech and equal-protection rights.
Lawyer Roy Carpenter expressed a different view as he left the Starkville Cafe after lunch Thursday.
"Everyone's got a right to assemble," Carpenter said. He said the men who gather at the cafe's communal "liar's table," where locals chew over the news and Mississippi State sports during the week, mostly agreed on that point.
McDaniel said pride weekend is going forward, and she still believes it will include a parade. Now, though, she expects supporters to flock to Starkville to "make history."
"I think this is way bigger than we intended or ever expected," she said.
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The Gayly. February 25, 9:42 a.m. CST.