For Mississippians, Pride Month 2023 began with the revelation that the University of Mississippi Medical Center is closing its LGBTQ+ clinic amid political pressure and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruling that businesses can discriminate against same-sex couples.
At this time eight years ago, LGBTQ+ people were celebrating. On June 26, 2015, the nation’s high court overturned state bans on same-sex marriage, including in Mississippi, with its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. On that same day 10 years ago, the court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal. And on that same day 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared sodomy laws, including one still on the books in Mississippi, unconstitutional.
But even amid the celebration in the LGBTQ+ community after the Obergefell ruling, I knew those rights were tenuous; a court that can recognize rights can also deny them. A year before the ruling, I watched as then-Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn denied applications from one same-sex couple after another as they applied for marriage licenses. “When the law changes, I’ll change,” she would tell them. (She followed through on her promise a year later).
A month after the Obergefell decision, The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed about what I considered the most important issue of the 2016 election. I cited that story and pointed to the Supreme Court. “As a Southerner whose region’s history is rife with tales of discrimination, I know that there is no more important issue for 2016 presidential candidates than the question of who they will nominate to sit on the United States Supreme Court. … The next president may have the chance to fundamentally remake the court for decades beyond his or her time in office.”
Sure enough, the next president appointed three justices, shifting the balance toward conservative justices with a 2-to-1 majority. For years, marginalized groups have waited with bated breath to see how this court would rule on issues like abortion rights in the Dobbs case or affirmative action in college admissions. The court ruled in June 2022 that states like Mississippi can enact sweeping abortion bans and decided on June 29, 2023, that race-conscious admissions are unconstitutional.
For LGBTQ+ Mississippians, the June 30 ruling affirming that businesses have a right to refuse service to LGBTQ+ people is familiar. In response to the 2015 ruling overturning gay marriage bans, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law in 2016 allowing businesses to refuse services to LGBTQ+ people based on religious beliefs with H.B. 1523. Even before Donald Trump became president and reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court, its majority allowed that law to stand in 2016 when it declined to hear an appeal.
As the Jackson Free Press reported in 2016, the Arizona-based Christian-right legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom helped craft that bill before then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed it. The same organization was behind the 2018 Mississippi abortion ban and the strategy to use it to overturn Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs case. The ADF has drafted or promoted anti-LGBTQ+ bills in recent years, like the ban on transgender children in school sports that Mississippi adopted in 2021 and the ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors that Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law in February.
The ADF, which has strong ties to Christian dominionists and runs a fellowship for law students designed to “inspire a distinctly Christian worldview in every area of law,” was also behind the Colorado case that led the U.S. Supreme Court to find a right for some businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. The case centered around a business owner who said a gay man named Stewart had requested that she design a wedding website for him and his groom, Mike.
In late June, however, New Republic contacted Stewart, whose contact information was included in the form submitted to the business at the center of the case; he said he had never made such a request, the report said. Further, he said he was not aware of the case and that he was married to a woman at the time of the alleged request. “I’m married, I have a child—I’m not really sure where that came from? But somebody’s using false information in a Supreme Court filing document.” the publication reported him saying. The publication withheld Stewart’s last name.
The New Republic reporter, Melissa Grant, wrote that before contacting Stewart, she had “assumed at least some reporters over the years had contacted him about his website inquiry to 303 Creative” because his contact information wasn’t redacted in the filing. (Tip for reporters: Never assume another reporter has done something obvious. Chances are, other reporters assumed the same and failed to ask important questions as a result.)
Despite the dubious basis for the entire case, it has now resulted in a national precedent that overrules some LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections in states that have adopted such laws. The case did not change the status quo for Mississippi, where a federal judge in May allowed a public school to refuse to allow a transgender girl to graduate unless she agreed to wear boys’ clothes under her robes.
These events, and the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court appointments since 2016, highlight the role of journalists when reporting on elections. In 2016, the national media largely failed to convey the gravity of the U.S. Supreme Court in the election and focused instead on sensational headlines, horse-race polls and salacious remarks that did little to convey to voters what victory for either candidate would mean for their lives.
With Mississippi’s statewide and state legislative elections mere months away, our local and state reporters should take a different tack and dedicate themselves to informing residents about candidates’ views and what’s at stake for them and their loved ones—not on what those positions mean for one candidate’s political prospects.
Last month, Democratic candidate for governor Brandon Presley said he did not support the ban on transgender-affirming care for minors that Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law. Reeves defended the law, saying his goal was to “prevent children from getting life-altering experimental procedures.” (Along with banning gender-affirming surgeries that were not performed in Mississippi to begin with, the law also bans puberty blockers, which are reversible). “I trust families, I trust mamas, and I trust daddies to deal with the health care of their children first and foremost, period,” Presley said.
The role of the press is not to pontificate on whether one of these positions helps a candidate and hurts the other. Our role is to help residents understand how a candidate’s positions will affect real people—their classmates, their coworkers, their families, their friends and even neighbors they’ve never met. Journalists are not soothsayers whose predictions are written in stone, and voters are not passive observers watching from the sidelines as politicians play God with their lives.
As journalists, it’s up to us to treat people as active participants in democracy whose voices and voters have the power to determine their fates—and to help give them the tools and information they need to best exercise that power. We appreciate your encouragement and donations that help us fulfill that essential role.