Starkville Pride marches into court over parade permit

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For the fourth time in as many years, a Mississippi government body is going to court over gay rights issues.

On Monday, Starkville Pride, a Mississippi gay, lesbian, transgender and queer community organization, sued the city of Starkville in U.S. District Court over the board of aldermen’s rejection last week of the group’s application for a gay pride parade.

The four aldermen who voted against granting the permit offered no explanation at the time and have not answered multiple requests for comment from Mississippi Today. Three members of the board voted in favor of the permit and have indicated that the application “checked all the right boxes.” As a result, the lawsuit alleges that the board’s denial is discriminatory and, therefore, unconstitutional.

“Based solely on the content of their speech, specifically the fact that they take pride in being gay, these students are being denied their right to speak in a public forum,” said Robbie Kaplan, the attorney representing Starkville Pride. “We are confident that the federal court will reverse this unconstitutional action and allow the parade to proceed as planned.”

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Bailey McDaniel, 22, an organizer with Starkville Pride, an LGBT support group that was denied a permit to hold the city’s first gay pride parade.

Members of Starkville Pride have said that the board’s decision to reject their application came as a surprise. Rejections for permit applications are unusual. The board has approved every similar application filed between 2014 and 2018, according to the lawsuit.

“We wanted to have a day of celebration and inclusiveness,” said Bailey McDaniel, president of Starkville Pride. “Without explanation or warning, a whole community of people have been denied their constitutional rights. We would like to believe that this type of hateful, intolerant behavior does not represent the Starkville community and we hope that the decision will be reversed.”

Still, many members of Starkville city government said they weren’t surprised by the outcome. In 2014, Starkville became the first town in Mississippi to pass an anti-discrimination resolution that included sexual orientation and identity and later added a policy that extended health benefits to domestic partners of city employees.

But months later, the city quietly repealed both policies under pressure from local religious leaders, according to members of the board of aldermen who supported the Pride parade.

“I would say it’s unfortunate but, no, it wasn’t surprising,” said Jason Walker, an alderman in Starkville’s Ward 4. “In the previous term (the anti-discrimination resolution) became a highly debated and controversial vote and was ultimately repealed. And those same individuals were re-elected, and their opinion didn’t seem to change.”

Previous federal court battles over alleged gay rights violations in Mississippi include the 2015 federal appeals court decision to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage. And in 2016, a U.S. District Court Judge overturned the state’s ban on gay and lesbian parents adopting children.

Several months after that, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law that singled out three “sincerely held” religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth. The law protects from prosecution a person who refuses service to someone if they feel doing so would violate those beliefs.

Public outcry was swift as were the federal lawsuits. Although a U.S. District Court judge agreed the law was unconstitutional, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately overturned that ruling on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing because the law had not yet taken effect.

Kaplan, the attorney for Starkville Pride, represented plaintiffs in each of the above cases.

While Starkville Pride’s Bailey McDaniel may have been caught off guard by the outcome, supporters of the event arrived prepared for a battle. At the meeting on Tuesday evening, 14 Starkville residents, from all corners of the community, spoke in support of the parade. Two spoke against it.

After the vote, Mayor Lynn Spruill publicly expressed disappointment, arguing it would reflect badly on Starkville.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill

“I had hoped it would go differently. I’ve been extremely supportive of special events. In my opinion the more the merrier,” Spruill told Mississippi Today on Thursday. “I do not think the denial represents the community. I think the community is much more inclusive and diverse than this vote represents.”

What Spruill and some of the aldermen said was less surprising were rumors of a lawsuit, which had begun swirling shortly after news of the board’s rejection broke. At the beginning of last Tuesday’s meeting, the board held an executive session to discuss potential legal action.

“If you ask a given number of attorneys, most would tell you you don’t have much legal standing for denying (the parade). And I say that with the benefit of hindsight,” said Sandra Sistrunk, an alderman for Ward 2, who is in favor of a Pride parade.