Tennessee takes aim at marriage rights

By Carter Roos, Staff Writer

On March 6, a bill passed the Tennessee house of representatives. This bill, introduced by representative Monty Fritts, would allow Tennessee clerks and officiants to refuse to solemnize a couple’s marriage or grant them a marriage license if it did not align with their personal beliefs. Fritts claims that this bill is intended to protect clerks, though he also claims that he is not aware of anyone who has been forced to solemnize a marriage against their will; so what he is defending the clerks from remains unclear. The bill, which was expected to be discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 13 has been deferred until January 2024. 

While Fritts and many conservative organizations claim that the bill is not intended to harm or prohibit the right of same-sex couples it is hard to imagine any other reason to present the bill. Realistically, state clerks are not harmed by issuing marriage licenses, in fact it is one of the primary facets of their job. Allowing these people a blanket excuse not to do their job is bad enough, rationalizing that excuse by claiming that issuing marriage licenses to diverse couples is harming them, or their beliefs, is bigotry. 

This bill doesn’t only affect queer couples, or even just couples in Tennessee. The bill’s vague wording means that clerks would be able to deny marriage licenses to couples for any reason that they claim makes them uncomfortable, this could mean issues for same-sex couples, interracial couples, and even inter-faith couples. Additionally, the bill gives states a way to deny marriage licenses while avoiding violating any of the rulings in Obergefell V. Hodges or Davis V. Ermold; potentially establishing a dangerous precedent for other states to follow. 

Over the next 10 months, as the bill is buried in Tennessee’s legal system and most people forget about it, the state legislators likely hope opposition to the bill will die down so that it can pass quietly through the Senate and into law; I hope that it does not.  

For the past 8 years same-sex couples have lived in relative security, legally speaking. The ruling in Obergefell V. Hodges was a tremendous step forward and since 2015 has been supported by numerous other rulings and policies. This bill is an attempt to begin to take away everything our communities have fought for, not only over these last 8 years, but for decades. 

This bill represents the beginning of the end of everything we have fought for. It means that a coordinated effort from Tennessee clerks could mean the end of same-sex marriage in that state and, legally, those clerks would be doing nothing outside of their authority. Additionally, this bill I sonly one more step in the restrictive conservative laws that have been pervasive in Tennessee’s legislature this year. And, as we’ve seen from other examples, many states are eager to Follow Tennessee’s example when it comes to these laws, such as the 9 states that quickly followed Tennessee’s restrictions on drag performances with similar bills of their own. 

For now, we all have the right to get married. For our brothers & sisters in Tennessee, those days may be drawing to a close, and you can be certain that if these restrictions are allowed to stand in one state they will quickly migrate throughout the United States. To defend ourselves and our families, we must, indeed, all hang together.