Protesters at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington, DC, in June 2010
The most controversial item on the Mississippi ballot this fall is not a politician but rather an idea. In November, Mississippians will vote on an amendment to change the meaning of the word "person" in the state constitution. Under the new language, human life would begin not at birth but at the moment of fertilization. If the amendment passes, it will outlaw abortion in the state entirely, even in cases of rape or incest. It might even leave some forms of contraception, and procedures such as in vitro fertilization, on life support.
Ballot Measure 26, the "Personhood Amendment," has drawn the endorsement of celebrities including Mike Huckabee and Brett Favre's wife, Deanna. The Tupelo-based American Family Association (AFA), one of the nation's leading social-conservative organizations, is teaming up with the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, to secure its passage. In mid-September, Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, announced his support for the measure.
But for all the momentum it has gained, the amendment is in large part the handiwork of one lesser known figure, an activist named Les Riley. A tractor salesman, former candidate for agriculture commissioner, and chair of the state Constitution Party, Riley is steeped in fringe politics. He founded the group Personhood Mississippi, drafted the amendment's language, started the signature drive that got it on the ballot, and promoted it statewide starting on June 2 with an inflammatory campaign called the "Conceived in Rape Tour."
The idea behind the amendment is simple: If by law life begins at fertilization, then abortion (and human cloning) would become legally impossible. In an interview with the AFA this summer, Riley asserted that his amendment would have "international implications" and could become "the biggest news in the pro-life movement in 20 years." If all goes as planned, it will launch a court challenge that will end with Roe v. Wade itself being overturned.
As radical and grandiose as that may sound, it fits with fringe views from Riley's past. A neo-secessionist, Riley once supported an effort to form an independent theocratic republic in South Carolina, and he belonged to an organization—the League of the South—dedicated to forming a "free Southern Republic" built on biblical law.
Prior to forming Personhood Mississippi in 2009, Riley was, for a brief period, a blogger for a fledgling secession movement in South Carolina called Christian Exodus. The movement was founded with the goal of "forming an independent Christian nation that will survive after the decline and fall of the financially and morally bankrupt American empire." It was spurred into being after the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional.
Riley refers to Washington, DC, as "Sodom on the Potomac."
As the group explained in its mission statement, "The chains of our slavery and dependence upon godless government have more of a hold on us than can be broken by simply moving to another State." It planned to move 12,000 fundamentalist Christians to the Palmetto State by 2006, where they would then work to nudge the state toward secession shortly after that.
Exodus drew its inspiration from the Free State Project, a plot hatched by activists in 2002 to turn New Hampshire into a libertarian paradise through a mass migration of "liberty-loving people." But while the Free Staters have carved out a political toehold in the Granite State, the South Carolina project never got traction. "Christian Exodus was a huge joke," says Mark Potok, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal watchdog group. Even Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian school that serves as the spiritual anchor of the region, came out against it. "As Christians," a spokesman told Fox News in 2004, "it's not our job to start a new country."
For years, Riley also served as a leader of the Mississippi chapter of the League of the South, a neo-confederate organization that subscribes to the theory that the nation can only be saved by breaking it apart. The League, which calls for a new nation rooted on European principles and a culture reflecting of its "European population," is based on Christian reconstructionism, which posits that the United States was founded on and should return to biblical law. (Riley refers to Washington, DC, as "Sodom on the Potomac" and quotes reconstructionist godfather R.J. Rushdoony, who said "all ideas are inherently religious.")
Mississippi only has one facility that provides abortion, the product of years of restrictive legislation. But more than abortion is at stake with Ballot Measure 26, says Bear Atwood, legal director for the Mississippi ACLU. If it passes, it would have a "chilling effect" on women's health care access—including seemingly unrelated procedures such as in vitro fertilization. "When you have in vitro fertilization, multiple eggs will get fertilized, but not all of them can be implanted," she explains. "And now you have that problem of eggs which can't be implanted, or of implanting too many or all of them, which would put the woman's health at risk. So really, the only choice the woman would have would be to not to go forward."