When the ACLU called, former Mississippi legislator and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz was happy to sign on as an attorney suing the state over its "religious freedom" bill.
Diaz and attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union are representing Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, an engaged couple from Meridian who intend to marry within the next three years. They are asking a federal judge to stop the state from enacting the law before it takes effect July 1. Presiding over the case is U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan, who recently ordered the state to lift its ban on adoption by married, same-sex couples.
"I think most Mississippians are opposed to discrimination and this bill enacts discrimination into state law," said Diaz, who is from the Coast but now practices law in Jackson. "I think most Mississippians are appalled by that."
Diaz said Alford and Thomas were elated when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year. But then the state Legislature passed House Bill 1523. It allows state government employees and others to refuse gay couples services related to marriage.
Diaz said the bill was "a slap in the face" to Alford and Thomas.
A news release from the ACLU of Mississippi quoted the couple's stance: "When HB 1523 passed, it was heartbreaking because it takes away our chance to finally be treated equally. At a time when we're supposed to be excited as a couple engaged to be married, this law permits discrimination against us simply because of who we are. This is not the Mississippi we're proud to call home. We're hopeful others will come to realize this and not allow this harmful measure to become law."
The couple is suing Judy Moulder as registrar of the State Office of Vital Records. Court clerks and other government employees can opt out of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by filing written notice with the registrar that issuing the licenses would violate their "sincerely held religious belief or moral convictions."
The lawsuit focuses on the fact that Mississippi has essentially created a separate process for same-sex couples trying to marry, which is contrary to the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. The Supreme Court acknowledged homosexuality does conflict with the religious beliefs of some Americans, but turning those beliefs into public policy denies same-sex couples their freedom and constitutional right to equal treatment.
Diaz compared House Bill 1523 to the separate and unequal school systems the state created to segregate black and white students.
The same-sex couple's lawsuit says: "Creating a separate and unequal set of laws applying only to same-sex couples imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples.
"The stigma is further enhanced by the fact that the registrar's 'no same-sex couples allowed' list is just one part of a comprehensive legal regime created by HB 1523 that will continue to impose separate and unequal treatment on plaintiffs (Alford and Thomas), ACLU of Mississippi members and other same-sex couples over the course of their lives."
The ACLU said it also is committed to challenging other aspects of House Bill 1523 should it become law: "In particular, HB 1523 includes many provisions authorizing discrimination against transgender people outside the context of marriage, and against anyone who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage."