Tennessee Takes Step Toward Letting People Refuse To Marry LGBTQ+ Couples

The Tennessee Senate passed a bill Monday evening that would allow people to refuse to perform a marriage that they don’t personally agree with.

Senate Bill 596 says “a person shall not be required to solemnize a marriage if the person has an objection to solemnizing the marriage based on the person’s conscience or religious beliefs.”

State Rep. Monty Fritts (R), the sponsor of an identical companion bill in the state House, said last year that the bill was created “simply and clearly to protect the rights of the officiate or officiates of wedding ceremonies.”

However, Tennessee law currently does not require anyone to officiate a marriage if they don’t want to.

The Senate bill has been substituted with the identical House bill. It will move on to the House for the next vote.

This is the Republican-controlled legislature’s second attempt to push forward a bill that critics say could have widespread ramifications, including for LGBTQ+ and interracial couples.

“The way it’s worded, you can discriminate against anybody for any reason, which is terrible,” said Eric Patton, a Tennessee-based minister, told Nashville television station WKRN. “The idea that you can discriminate against anybody is just wrong-headed and general Tennessee nonsense.”

Patton told the Nashville outlet that the “vaguely worded” legislation is opening itself up to lawsuits because the state wants “to test the marriage equality law as it stands.”

The Human Rights Campaign and Tennessee Equality Project condemned this bill and the state’s anti-drag bill last year.

Marriage equality has been a federally protected right since 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected.

Same-sex and interracial marriages are further protected by the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022, repealing the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and guaranteeing federal protections for same-sex couples across the country.

Although it was heralded as the biggest win for LGBTQ+ equality since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” critics have said the bill didn’t go far enough and instead pandered to religious organizations. An amendment in the law carves out exceptions for religious organizations to refuse to marry same-sex couples, and also allows religious organizations to keep their tax exempt status and receive federal benefits even if they choose to refuse services for a same-sex marriage.

Only two states, North Carolina and Mississippi, have laws on the books that allow state and local officials to refuse marriages with which they disagree.

Last year Tennessee introduced ― and passed ― more anti-LGBTQ laws than any other state.

Cathryn Oakley, the director of legal policy at the Human Rights Campaign, characterized Tennessee as an “innovator” in anti-LGBTQ policies.

“They try things early,” Oakley told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes they don’t pass them right away, but they’ve got a little bit of everything. They’re a lab for this stuff.”
Tennessee is responsible for 29 of the more than 415 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative tracker.

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