Mississippi Blues: New Lawsuit Accuses Town Of Anti-Gay Prejudice

Last year, Pat “PJ” Newton applied for a license to open a bar and café in the town. That should have been an uncontroversial proposal, but local residents rallied to oppose it.

The website of Shannon, Miss., advertises the town as a place for growth – and a bulwark of family values.

“Today we take pride in being on the quiet side of county with our relaxed country living where traditions of family, faith, and brotherly love make up who we are today,” it reads.

But the small town’s resistance to a proposed gay bar make it clear that in Shannon, faith trumps brotherly love.

Last year, Pat “PJ” Newton applied for a license to open a bar and café in the town. That should have been an uncontroversial proposal, but local residents rallied to oppose it. At a town hall meeting, residents presented a petition asking the town’s aldermen to deny the proposal.

Their concerns, they said, were simply due to the business’ nature as a bar, which would offer “no benefits or enhancements to the citizens of the Town of Shannon.” For the record, Shannon is not a dry town. It’s already home to a sports bar. There’s more context to this story, though it doesn’t appear in the petition, or in the aldermen’s decision to deny Newton her license.

It wouldn’t have been Newton’s first business venture in Shannon; she ran a gay bar, O’Hara’s, until 1998. O’Hara’s served as a gathering place for the Deep South’s marginalized LGBT community, a safe haven in a region bristling with anti-gay attitudes.

And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, those attitudes are responsible for thwarting Newton’s latest business plan. In a lawsuit filed on Newton’s behalf, the SPLC argues that prejudice motivated the town’s decision. By denying Newton a license to open a gay bar, the town violated her constitutional rights.

A new investigative report by the Huffington Post appears to support that argument. Betty Scott, a signatory to the petition, told the Post, “I'm anti-gay.”

“I know that’s not politically correct these days, but that’s the way I feel,” Scott said. “I’m a Christian and in the eyes of God it’s an abomination.”

Another resident echoed Scott’s concerns. “I don’t think we need any bars, but we sure don’t need a gay and lesbian bar,” she told the Post. “That’s for New York and places like that. Not for a little town.”

Shannon , with a population of about 1,700, is certainly a little town. But even in a small community deep in the heart of Mississippi, LGBT people exist. Newton’s old gay bar gave them a necessary shelter. The SPLC argues that the community can tolerate another.

“Rural Mississippi is not, as a general matter, a place that welcomes LGBT individuals like Newton,” the suit reads. It further alleges that Shannon itself has a particularly grim history of anti-gay prejudice. The few out LGBT residents in the area report bigoted threats; in one case, first responders refused to assist a bleeding man believed to be gay.

It makes sense that this prejudice would extend to the town’s leadership. The Post reports that according to remarks overheard by another resident, Alderman Joey McCord understood and welcomed the prospect of a lawsuit.

“It will be tied up in court for two years and that's two years she won’t be able to open,” he told townspeople. And in 2010, a town clerk told another gay entrepreneur that the town “would not tolerate an establishment that catered to the LGBT community.”

The people of Shannon are entitled to their interpretation of the Bible. They are not entitled to conduct official town business based on their interpretation of the Bible. Newton’s business proposal should be judged on its merits, not by her sexual orientation, and if Shannon’s leaders allowed anti-gay prejudice to influence their decision they egregiously violated the First Amendment.

It’s time for Shannon to prove its commitment to brotherly love – and to the Constitution.