EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, MS (AP) – A new Mississippi law might violate a federal judge’s order that blocks the state from treating same-sex couples differently from straight couples who want to marry, says an attorney who helped overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Roberta Kaplan said in a letter to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and other officials that she has “serious concerns” about how the state will comply with the judge’s order once a religious-objections measure, House Bill 1523 becomes law July 1.
Kaplan, based in New York, represented Campaign for Southern Equality and same-sex couples who filed a 2014 federal lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s ban on gay marriage. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves in late 2014 blocked Mississippi from enforcing the ban, but he put his ruling on hold while the state appealed his decision.
Before an appeals court could rule, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. Days later, Reeves issued an order permanently blocking Mississippi from enforcing its ban on gay marriage.
Kaplan says Mississippi’s new law may violate that order. The law, signed April 5 by Bryant, says workers can cite their own religious objections to same-sex marriage to deny services to people.
Government clerks could recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples, and judges could recuse themselves from performing same-sex weddings, under the law. Although the law says such officials must find someone else to issue the license or perform the wedding, legislators did not say what happens when every employee in a clerk’s office or every judge in a county chooses not to provide the services for same-sex couples.
“HB 1523 is absolutely silent as to how the right of all Mississippians who seek to legally marry, including gay men and lesbians, will be protected under this new ‘recusal’ system,” Kaplan wrote in the letter.
Officials who intend to recuse themselves must file a statement with the state vital statistics registrar, who works for the Health Department.
Attorney General Jim Hood received Kaplan’s “letter and will respond to it at the appropriate time,” said Rachael Ring, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
The governor’s spokesman did not immediately respond.
Kaplan is asking Mississippi officials to provide copies of all recusal forms filed by government workers, and to note “whether the individual seeking recusal intends to continue issuing marriage licenses to straight couples, while at the same time refusing to participate in issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples.”
She said Tuesday that if same-sex couples are treated differently than straight couples that could prompt a court challenge.
“We will do whatever it takes, including filing action if necessary, to enforce our clients’ rights that have already been litigated,” Kaplan told The Associated Press.
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