07/08/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Mississippi Gay Bar Denied License

Last week's Supreme Court decisions led to the restoration of marriage equality in California and the demise of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. These were huge steps forward for LGBT Americans.

But discrimination -- including government discrimination -- against LGBT people remains a daily fact of life for many, most notably in the South.

Just days after crowds of people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York took to the streets to celebrate the Supreme Court victories, one woman in rural Mississippi took a personal stand against a local form of discrimination that is just as painful, just as ugly, and just as demeaning as the discrimination examined in the Supreme Court decisions.

Pat "PJ" Newton is a 55-year-old lesbian who, in the 1990s, operated a bar called O'Hara's in the small town of Shannon, Miss., south of Tupelo. The bar mainly served LGBT customers, though it was welcoming to all. The bar was a place where LGBT people could gather and socialize without fear, and it was the only gay bar within about a 100-mile radius. After PJ recently decided to reopen the business, she went before the Shannon Board of Aldermen to get a business license, believing the hearing would be routine.

It wasn't.

To PJ's utter surprise, she encountered a hostile crowd of more than 30 people. She was confronted with a petition against the bar, signed by almost 200 of the town's 1,800 residents. Citizens and aldermen peppered her with questions laced with fear and insults.

She was asked how she could call herself a Christian.

She was asked whether she would let her daughter go into "a bar like that."

At the end of the hearing, the board was informed that although PJ had met all the requirements for her application, the board nonetheless could deny the application by citing public health and safety concerns. The board denied the application by a 4-to-1 vote.

"I only wanted to reopen a business that meant so much to so many people," PJ said. "I've already invested a great deal of time and money into my business. I'm committed to my business and this community."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has demanded that the board approve PJ's business permit or face a federal lawsuit. In a letter to the board and mayor, the SPLC said that the denial violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. It also noted that, for "well over a century, it has been unconstitutional for a municipality to deny a business license to an applicant on account of hostility towards a particular group."

It's easy to write off this sort of discrimination as a problem just in the Deep South, or just in this particular town, but this case is about more than just one small town in Mississippi. It's about ensuring equality for everybody, in every state. It's also about the fact that LGBT live everywhere; even if they don't live in San Francisco or New York, they deserve to lead full and honest lives, with equal opportunity under the law.

We cannot write off discrimination in Mississippi or other Southern states simply because it doesn't surprise us, or because we think that LGBT people can simply move to more welcoming states. Dignity and opportunity are American values, and their enjoyment should not depend on the happenstance of geography.