October 21, 2014 9:45:06 AM
JACKSON -- A gay-rights group and two lesbian couples filed a federal lawsuit Monday to try to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi, a Bible Belt state where the Republican governor and GOP leaders who control the state Legislature have long said they believe marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson by Campaign for Southern Equality; Rebecca "Becky" Bickett and her longtime partner, Andrea Sanders, who were denied a Mississippi marriage license earlier this year; and Jocelyn "Joce" (JOH'-see) Pritchett and Carla Webb, who live in Mississippi and married in Maine in 2013.
After a series of recent court decisions, gay couples have the right to marry in 30 states.
The lawsuit, which represents one side of a legal argument, says Mississippi violates the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians and denies same-sex couples the "rights, benefits and duties that automatically come with marriage."
"We're not arguing that any church or any synagogue in Mississippi has to have marriage ceremonies," Roberta Kaplan, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, told The Associated Press. "We're arguing that if the government, the state government in Mississippi, is going to offer marriage to straight couples, it is going to have to offer it to gay couples, as well."
In November 2004, Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It was approved by 86 percent of people voting that day.
The suit says Mississippi prevents same-sex couples from adopting children together or being listed as parents together on a birth certificate; filing joint tax returns; making health care decisions for each other; receiving health and retirement benefits together if at least one partner is a public employee; and being guaranteed to pass property on to a surviving partner when one person in the couple dies.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was traveling out of state Monday and was not immediately available to respond. His spokesman, Knox Graham, said in a statement later Monday that the governor "took an oath of office to defend the constitution of the State of Mississippi and that's what he intends to do."
"He has every confidence in the Attorney General to vigorously defend the state from this lawsuit."
Bryant intervened last month in a case in which a lesbian couple are seeking a divorce in Mississippi after having married in 2008 in California. An attorney for one of the women in the divorce case argues that equal-protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution require Mississippi to recognize a marriage performed legally in another state -- one of the same arguments made in the federal lawsuit filed by the other couples Monday.
Kaplan is the attorney who successfully argued a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of a federal ban on gay marriage. She is asking U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to grant a preliminary injunction that would prevent Mississippi from enforcing its ban on same-sex marriage while the new lawsuit is pending.
"Mississippi's constitutional and statutory provisions arbitrarily discriminate against gay couples, effectively writing inequality into Mississippi law," the lawsuit says.
The other defendants in the lawsuit are Attorney General Jim Hood and Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn, both Democrats.
Circuit clerks issue Mississippi marriage licenses. Bickett and Sanders live in coastal Harrison County, and the lawsuit says their application for a marriage license was denied this year in Hinds County.
Hood's spokeswoman, Jan Schaefer, said the attorney general would respond to the lawsuit in later court filings. He did not comment on the suit Monday.
In a response to the attempted same-sex divorce case in Mississippi, Hood's office wrote several weeks ago that the U.S. Supreme Court did not "require states to recognize same-sex marriages authorized in other jurisdictions." In 2012, Hood said the state had no legal standing to deny permission for a lesbian couple to hold a commitment ceremony at a state-owned agriculture museum.
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