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Our View: Starkville Board of Aldermen flunk Civics test




Board of aldermen and city council meetings provide an opportunity to see the workings of our system of government at the most basic level. Those unfamiliar with how local governments operate soon realize that there are rules that govern what our elected officials may or may not do and how measures must be addressed.  


But Tuesday night in Starkville, it was the majority of the city's board of aldermen who proved themselves ignorant of those tenets, damaging not only the board's reputation, but the city's as well. 


During the meeting, a group of Starkville citizens asked the board for a permit to hold a gay pride parade in the city on March 24. 


By a 4-3 vote, the board rejected that request. Board members Ben Carver, David Little, Henry Vaughn and vice-mayor Roy A. Perkins voted to deny the permit, refusing to state their reasons for their votes. 


Their conduct is not only unethical -- citizens have an expectation that the board will explain the decisions they make -- but most likely a violation of the Constitution. 


All four of the board members should be ashamed, but it is especially true of Perkins, an attorney and candidate for a judge position on 14th Chancery District Court. 


Of all people, Perkins should know that summarily rejecting the group's request for a parade permit is a violation of the Constitution. Supreme Court rulings have repeatedly defended the right of citizens to conduct such parades under the First Amendment which protects "the right of the people to peaceably assemble." There is nothing ambiguous about the language.  


While the Supreme Court has ruled in case after case that the people have the right to hold public gathering and parades, those rights, like all rights, are not without certain restrictions. The "state" can deny such permits if issuing them can be proven to be a threat to public safety, for example. The few limitations applied to the First Amendment fall under what the courts have defined as "compelling state interests." In those situations, The burden of proof lies with the government to prove why those exceptions apply. In other words, elected leaders cannot pick and choose. 


The Starkville board routinely grants permits for its Christmas Parade, Bulldog bash and other events. The question becomes, what distinguishes this planned parade from those approved public events? It will be a difficult case to make. Local governments may not deny a request for a parade or public event simply because it disagrees with the message being presented. 


Before the vote was held, citizens were allowed to speak in favor of or against the proposed parade. Most spoke in support of the parade, but a few, including a local pastor, urged the board to deny the permit. 


That a pastor would take such a position, while not surprising -- there are still many in the religious community who oppose LGBT rights -- further displays an alarming ignorance of our Constitution. The pastor exerts his right under the First Amendment while denying it to others. 


In our countries, free speech is a fundamental part of democracy. A parade harms no one. Thanks largely to the same Constitution the board of aldermen chose to ignore Tuesday, we do not live in a totalitarian state where people are forced to attend parades or other public events. Those who are offended by events, by their attendance, have made a conscious choice to be offended and are entitled to little sympathy. 


White supremacists hold parades and rallies and people regularly choose to ignore them. 


If we acknowledge that right where racist groups are concerned, what does it say about a community if it refuses that same right to the LGBT community? 


Tuesday was a black eye for the Starkville Board of Aldermen and the community they represent. 


If Tuesday was a Civics test, the majority of the board failed it miserably.



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