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Same-sex marriage is legal in Mississippi. On November 25, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the District Court for Southern Mississippi, ruled Mississippi's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Enforcement of his ruling was stayed pending appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. On June 29, the state attorney general ordered clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. On July 1, the Fifth Circuit lifted its stay and Judge Reeves ordered an end to Mississippi's enforcement of its same-sex marriage ban. However, until July 2, 2015, several counties in Mississippi continued to refuse to issue same-sex couple marriage licenses, including DeSoto, Jasper, Jones, Newton, Pontotoc, Simpson and Yalobusha.
On January 10, 1997, the Mississippi State Senate passed a bill banning same-sex marriage in the state. On February 5, 1997, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed the bill. On February 12, 1997, Governor Kirk Fordice signed the bill into law, which took immediate effect on the same day.
On March 1, 2004, the Mississippi House of Representatives, by a 97 to 17 vote, approved of Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as "only between a man and a woman" and denying recognition to same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. On April 7, the Mississippi State Senate, by a 51-0 vote, approved the it, and on November 4, voters approved it with 86% of the vote.
Campaign for Southern Equality v. BryantEdit
The Campaign for Southern Equality and two lesbian couples filed suit in federal district court on October 20, 2014, challenging Mississippi's statutory and constitutional denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Each of the couples is raising two children and one couple was previously married in Maine. Their principal attorney is Roberta Kaplan, who argued United States v. Windsor before the U.S. Supreme Court. They named as defendants in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant the governor and attorney general, and the Hinds County circuit clerk who denied a marriage license to one of the plaintiff couples. U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves held a hearing on motions for summary judgment on November 12. He ruled for the plaintiffs on November 25, finding that the state's ban did not survive rational basis review. Although Fifth Circuit precedent prevented him from using a stricter standard when considering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, he argued at length that the proper standard to use would be "heightened scrutiny" and he suggested the Fifth Circuit consider revisiting the question. He stayed his ruling for 14 days to allow the defendants to request a longer stay from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state defendants asked the Fifth Circuit for a stay pending appeal the next day. This was immediately opposed by the plaintiffs, who also filed a motion to expedite the appeal to coincide with hearings for De Leon v. Perry and Robicheaux v. George. On December 4, the Fifth Circuit agreed to expedite the case, but not to consolidate oral argument with its other same-sex marriage cases. It issued a stay pending appeal the same day. The Fifth Circuit heard oral argument on January 9, 2015, before Judges Patrick E. Higginbotham, Jerry E. Smith, and James E. Graves, Jr.
Czekala-Chatham v. MelanconEdit
A lesbian couple, residents of Mississippi who wed in California in 2008, asked the state to recognize their marriage in order to allow them to divorce. The lawsuit was filed in DeSoto County, Mississippi, in Mississippi's Third District Chancery Court. The Mississippi Attorney General's office has intervened in their divorce suit, Czekala-Chatham v. Melancon. The plaintiffs contend that "There can be no legitimate state purpose in allowing bigamous or incestuous couples to divorce and not allowing the same remedy to same-sex couples". The Third District Chancery Court dismissed their case for lack of jurisdiction. On appeal, the state Supreme Court has taken jurisdiction and allowed Governor Phil Bryant, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, to intervene to support the state's position. That court heard oral argument on January 21, 2015. On February 24, the court, after noting that all parties agreed proceedings should be stayed pending action by the U.S. Supreme Court in related cases, asked for additional briefs. Six justices supported that request, one objected that nothing would be gained, and two objected that it was only "a delay tactic" and the court should find the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
On July 2, 2015, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, citing the previous week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell, asked the court to grant the divorce he had previously opposed.
On November 5, 2015, in a 5-4 ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court remanded the case to the Third District Chancery Court in light of Obergefell. The court ruled that the plaintiffs' requested relief, which the Attorney General had already agreed, was consistent with Obergefell and thus ruled in favor of Czekala-Chatham. Forming the five-justice majority were Justices Waller, Randolph, Lamar, Chandler, and Pierce. Justices Coleman and Dickinson each joined each other's dissents, disagreeing with Obergefell and questioning the decision's constitutional authority. Justice Pierce, joined by Chandler, wrote a separate concurrence accusing Justices Coleman and Dickinson of violating their oath of office by refusing to follow a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice King, joined by Kitchens, dissented, though they agreed Czekala-Chatham received the proper relief. Justice King wrote that, "While I am satisfied that the right result for Czekala-Chatham has been reached, I believe this Court does a great disservice to the jurisprudence of this State by reaching such result in an order, rather than issuing a precedential opinion. Consequently, I object to issuing this decision via order."
On December 1, 2015, Chancellor Mitchell Lundy, Jr. granted the divorce. He apologized to Czekala-Chatham for denying the original divorce in December 2013, but explained that felt he had no other choice due to Mississippi's refusal to recognize the marriage at the time.
U.S. Supreme Court rulingEdit
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Following the decision, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said: "The Supreme Court's decision is not immediately effective in Mississippi. It will become effective in Mississippi, and circuit clerks will be required to issue same-sex marriage licenses, when the 5th Circuit lifts the stay" and allow Judge Reeves' order to take effect. The governor and lieutenant governor attacked the ruling. State Representative Andy Gipson, chair of the Mississippi House Judiciary Committee, suggested the state should consider having "no marriage certificate sponsored by the state".
The plaintiffs filed a motion the same day asking the Fifth Circuit to lift its stay of that order. Attorney General Hood did not oppose that motion, but Governor Phil Bryant did.
On June 29, Hood issued an email to county clerks to clarify his earlier statement which, he wrote, "seems to have been misinterpreted as prohibiting Circuit Clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. The statement was merely meant to explain that an order of the Fifth Circuit would be necessary to lift the stay." He wrote: "Obergefell is the law of the land. If a clerk has issued or decides to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple, there will be no adverse action taken by the Attorney General against that circuit clerk on behalf of the State.... On the other hand, a clerk who refuses to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple could be sued by the denied couple and may face liability."
On July 1, the Fifth Circuit lifted its stay and returned the Campaign for Southern Equality case to the district court where Judge Reeves ordered Mississippi and its agents to cease enforcing the state's constitutional and statutory restrictions on same-sex marriage.
On June 27, 2016, a federal judge ruled that clerks in Mississippi may not recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs. U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves said that the recusals on religious grounds granted by the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, violated Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.