A federal judge on Tuesday overturned Mississippi's ban on same-sex marriage, but circuit clerks cannot immediately start to issue marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples because the order was on hold for two weeks so the state can appeal.
State attorneys say they will ask the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to block Tuesday's order by US District Judge Carlton Reeves.
Mississippi has a 1997 law that bans same-sex marriage and a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"The Fourteenth Amendment operates to remove the blinders of inequality from our eyes," Reeves wrote. "Though we cherish our traditional values, they must give way to constitutional wisdom. Mississippi's traditional beliefs about gay and lesbian citizens led it to defy that wisdom by taking away fundamental rights owed to every citizen. It is time to restore those rights.
"Today's decision may cause uneasiness and concern about the change it will bring," he wrote. "But '"(t)hings change, people change, times change, and Mississippi changes, too.' The man who said these words, Ross R. Barnett, Jr., knew firsthand their truth."
Barnett Jr. is an attorney and son of segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who was in office from 1960 to 1964.
Two lesbian couples and a gay-rights group, Campaign for Southern Equality, filed a lawsuit Oct. 20 seeking to overturn Mississippi's same-sex marriage ban. Reeves heard five hours arguments Nov. 12 about whether he should issue a preliminary injunction to block the state from enforcing its ban while the lawsuit is pending.
One of the plaintiff couples, Jocelyn "Joce" Pritchett and Carla Webb, live in Mississippi and married in Maine in 2013. They have a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. They are Webb's biological children, conceived through a fertility treatment, and Pritchett gave birth to them. Pritchett has legal rights as their mother, but Webb does not. That would change if Webb were allowed to adopt them.
Pritchett said she, Webb and the children were dancing around their living room after hearing about Reeves' ruling.
"If gay marriage can be legal in Mississippi, the whole country can feel hope," Pritchett said in an interview.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's spokesman, Knox Graham said Bryant expects Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood to appeal the ruling and believes Hood will "continue to defend theMississippi Constitution." Bryant and Hood filed briefs asking Reeves to uphold Mississippi's marriage law and amendment.
"The office of attorney general has a statutory duty to argue the constitutionality of our laws," Hood said in a statement. "We will appeal the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and ask for a stay until that court decides the cases presently pending before it."
The 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, is scheduled to hear arguments in January from a ruling that overturned Texas' ban on same-sex marriage but has been put on hold. Gay-rights advocates are asking the US Supreme Court to review their case before the 5th Circuit hears it; the Louisiana ban on same-sex marriage was upheld by a federal district judge.
Roberta Kaplan, the New York-based attorney who argued for the plaintiffs, noted that the ruling came two days before Thanksgiving.
"Our clients and thousands of other gay people throughout the state of Mississippi can now enjoy their turkey and pecan pie with their families thankful that a court has recognized that their government must treat them the same as everyone else," Kaplan said in a statement. "This is a big day since it means that gay Mississippians will have the right to be married in their own home state that they love so much. It is also a big day for our country and for our Constitution, since it means that Americans in yet another state can now appreciate that gay people, who are their neighbors, friends and family members, have the right to equal protection of the laws,"
Rob Hill, Mississippi director of another gay-rights group, Human Rights Campaign, also applauded the ruling, which came hours after another federal judge struck down the same-sex marriage ban in Arkansas. Gay marriage is now legal in more than half the states.
"Judge Reeves' ruling today affirms what we already know to be true — that all loving, committed Mississippi couples should have the right to marry," Hill said in a statement. "However, there is still much to be done to advance equality here in the Magnolia State. For thousands of LGBT Mississippians, the reality remains that we risk being fired from over jobs, kicked out of our homes or refused service simply because of who we are and who we love — that's not right."