AP analysis: LGBT group faces political hurdles in Mississippi

JACKSON, Mississippi — A national civil rights group called Human Rights Campaign faces significant challenges as it tries to make Mississippi’s legal climate more open for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

HRC recently announced that it will spend $8.5 million for its “Project One America” in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, which currently have no laws to prohibit people from being fired from jobs or evicted from housing based on their sexual orientation.

The group’s president, Arkansas native Chad Griffin, said HRC is seeking equal rights, not special rights, in the three southern states. He said one goal is to show southerners that LGBT people are already part of their communities, as relatives, friends and co-workers.

“You’re just as likely to be gay in Meridian as you are in Manhattan,” Griffin said last week during a news conference in the Mississippi Capitol.

Mississippi has had high-profile legal battles in recent years over one school that banned a lesbian student from taking a female date to the prom and another that would not publish a yearbook photo of a lesbian student wearing a tuxedo.

The state has very few openly gay elected officials, and politicians of both major parties have long campaigned by saying they believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman. In 2004, Mississippi voters approved a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. It was approved by 86 percent of people voting that day. There appears to be little sentiment among legislative leaders to repeal the amendment.

“I think people in the state have strongly spoken that they believe marriage is one man and one woman,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the HRC news conference.

Mississippi enacted a hate-crimes law in the mid-1990s to allow judges to set enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by racial hatred. The law does not cover sexual orientation, and there has been no momentum to add it.