Tennessee State Capitol, Credit – Wikimedia
Tennessee lawmakers have delayed a vote on a measure that would only legally recognize marriages between one man and one woman until next year, but advocates are warning same-sex couples in Tennessee to be on alert as soon as the legislative session resumes next year.
The House and Senate versions of the anti-marriage equality bill were sponsored by Rep. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) and Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), and attempt to undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality nationwide, reports The Tennessean. Though Obergefell essentially ruled Tennessee’s statutory and constitutional bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, many conservatives in the state have bristled at what they see as an intrusion by a more socially liberal federal government.
Eventually, the bill was halted in a House subcommittee because lawmakers did not want to weigh in on the issue while two pending challenges to gay marriage is working its way through the courts, says Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. The bill has been placed on the first committee calendar of 2018, meaning that lawmakers could take up the issue almost immediately after next year’s session resumes.
“The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is the law of the land and the Legislature would invite chaos by providing legal cover to county clerks and other local officials who might ignore the ruling, not to mention incurring the devastating financial costs of the original bill,” Sanders said in a press release that was also sent out to supporters of the Tennessee Equality Project. “Fortunately, for now, the Legislature has chosen not to act, but the harms will be the same if the bill moves in 2018.”
The Family Action Council of Tennessee , which testified in favor of the bill, is the party behind the two lawsuits, one of which alleges that ministers and religious clergy might be forced to perform same-sex marriages or sign same-sex marriage licenses, says Sanders. He adds that he believes that the lawsuit will eventually be thrown out — ministers are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and may refuse to perform marriages for any reason — but that it may take a while for the Tennessee courts to make a final decision.
Legislative analysts have estimated that passing the bill, known as the Natural Marriage Defense Act, could put Tennessee at risk of losing $9 billion in federal funds if Congress believes they are guilty of discriminating against same-sex couples. That figure does not include additional legal fees that Tennessee might have to pay if the state is sued.
The defeat of the marriage bill comes just a week after a proposed anti-transgender “bathroom bill” failed to receive a motion in a Senate committee last week. As a result, the bill is effectively dead until next session, when it can be brought up again.
Sanders says the attention of his group and other pro-LGBT organizations has since switched to other bills that are part of what LGBTQ advocates call the “slate of hate” — that is, bills that target the LGBTQ community for discrimination. Chief among those bills includes a measure that would give individuals and businesses a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and a bill that would define any undefined words in the code according to their “natural” and “ordinary” meaning, which would effectively erase same-sex couples and LGBTQ parents from any laws relating to family issues like adoption, medical decision-making, or child custody.
The license to discriminate bill is slated to be heard in a subcommittee next week, while the “Sneaky LGBT Erasure Bill,” as LGBTQ advocates call it, has stalled in the Senate.
“We are shifting our attention to the sneakier, more subtle bills now that the obvious anti-LGBT bills have been defeated,” says Sanders.