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TN bill would let clerks deny marriage licenses to gay or interracial couples
Tennessee Republicans want to give people like Kim Davis even more power to discriminate
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A bill that just passed the Tennessee House would allow any county clerk to pull a Kim Davis and refuse to certify a marriage they oppose for religious or personal reasons.
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.
In practice, that means Christian clerks who, for religious reasons, oppose a same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, inter-faith marriage, marriage where one person is trans could refuse to sign their name on wedding certificates even though the marriage is otherwise legal. The bill is intended to gut marriage equality.
Keep in mind the whole point of a county clerk is to function as an arm of the government. Religious leaders are already under no obligation to bless or perform any wedding ceremony they oppose and they wouldn’t be affected by this bill at all.
This isn’t about finding a new officiant for the wedding ceremony. This bill would prevent those couples from getting the paperwork they need to be legally married. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Outside the legal problems, though, this is nothing more than a license for Christians to discriminate. It comes in the wake of Gov. Bill Lee banning drag performances (even though they pose no threat to anybody) and gender-affirming care (even though it helps transgender kids). It’s just another thing Republicans are doing to let LGBTQ people know they’re not welcome in the state.
This bill in particular is sponsored by State Rep. Monty Fritts, a self-described “Christian Constitutional Conservative Republican” who received an endorsement from the Christian Nationalist “Patriot Church” last year. Fritts is also a graduate of Liberty University, the right-wing school known best these days for the myriad sex scandals of Jerry Falwell, Jr. It’s not surprising that someone with that history is using his power to create more civil rights obstacles for couples he deems unfit.
Fritts, as expected, pretended this wasn’t really about anti-gay bigotry when defending the bill. Instead, he claimed he was just trying to protect old people.
“When you look at some of the research that we have found on this, that … young folks are trying to marry older folks to get to their financial accounts,” Fritts said. “I think there are other things that we need to do.”
Got that, everyone? In order to stop the scourge of sugar babies, Fritts created a way for the government to punish gay people. Makes perfect sense if you use bigot logic.
As the Memphis Flyer notes, similar bills to elevate Christians at the expense of everyone else when it comes to marriage haven’t worked out. A couple of years ago, Republican lawmakers banned online ordinations, so that a secular person who got ordained through the Universal Life Church wouldn’t be allowed to perform a wedding ceremony in the state. The ULC filed a federal lawsuit over the matter that’s still working its way through the courts; online ordinations are still legal in Tennessee until a judge’s decision says otherwise.
It’s possible this bill would face similar pushback.
If Christian racists don’t want to sign the marriage certificate of an interracial couple, then they should find a job at a church where that sort of bigotry is tolerated. County clerks shouldn’t be given a green light to discriminate on a whim.
It’s bad enough when Christian pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions because of a personal hangup on their end. Government officials should have even less leeway. Yet 17 Republicans (who likely claim people should have more freedom and less government intervention in their lives) are co-sponsoring this bill
You can just imagine the outcry if, in the future, a Muslim clerk in Tennessee refused to sign the wedding certificate of a Christian couple. Even if a colleague performed that duty instead, there would be immediate outcry. But because non-Christians have a much harder time getting elected in Tennessee, there’s no fear that Christians would ever be persecuted in the same way Fritts hopes to discriminate against everyone else he hates.
The Human Rights Campaign issued this statement in opposition to the bill:
Since 2015, Tennessee has enacted more anti-LGBTQ+ laws than any other state in the country—including two bathroom bans, three laws preventing transgender students from playing sports consistent with their gender identity, a law allowing discrimination by state contractors providing child welfare services paid for with taxpayer funds, curriculum censorship bills, and more. Tennessee’s attack on LGBTQ+ people has been unrelenting and has made Tennessee an increasingly difficult place for LGBTQ+ people to survive, let alone thrive.
[From Legal Director Sarah Warbelow:] “Instead of focusing on the issues that Tennesseans actually care about, radical politicians are wasting their time and using their power to target the LGBTQ+ community—from same sex couples, to transgender youth, to drag artists. These bills are not about protecting children and they are not about religious freedom. They are about stripping away the basic human rights that LGBTQ+ people have fought for over decades, forcing LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender and non-binary people, back in the closet and labeling us as dangerous. We urge the Tennessee Senate to reject these discriminatory, hateful bills.”
This bill isn’t just politically cruel, it’s legally stupid. But with Republicans controlling the Tennessee government, this bill is likely to become law soon.