Tennessee Bill Aims to Nullify Supreme Court Marriage Ruling

Banners calling for religious freedom, Don't Tread on Me flags appropriated by the Tea Party, Ted Cruz campaign buttons and hands raised to Heaven in prayer dotted the plaza outside the Capitol building in Nashville on September 17 as the Tennessee Pastors Network rallied their troops for the next phase in the culture war. The Tenth Amendment was praised more often than the Ten Commandments, though most of the speakers made it clear that their cause was a holy one. Those speakers included Rafael Cruz and Joe Davis, husband of Rowan Cowan, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis. A reporter and I counted at least forty state legislators on the stage at one point.

That is how the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act was launched. The bill essentially attempts to nullify the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision by preventing the state from recognizing any marriage other than one between a man and a woman and requiring the attorney general to defend any local official who defies the Supreme Court.

Do we think it will ultimately stand up in court? No, though the sponsors and those advising them believe it is a new path to get the issue reconsidered by the courts. And if the bill passes, I suspect we will have to endure a period of chaos in Tennessee in which random local officials around the state use the bill as an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples already married and those seeking marriage licenses.

The other harm is that once again LGBT Tennesseans will have to endure having the value of their lives debated publicly by the state's elected leaders when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Because the bill is harmful and because the Legislature could very well pass it, we're taking it seriously. The week of September 21, we have scheduled POWER Team training sessions in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Memphis and Knoxville with more to follow soon in Johnson City and Clarksville. These special teams will help with the media response and will drive citizen contacts with legislators. In October they will canvass key conservative legislative districts to identify as many opponents of the bill as possible. In other words, we're going to fight the bill using ordinary grassroots tactics and tactics usually reserved for elections. I am also encouraged by preliminary discussions with our lobbyist, but we expect a tough fight ahead.

We welcome the encouragement of the national LGBT community and allies. To outsiders, the situation must look impossible in such a red state as Tennessee surely is. While it is not hopeless, defeating the bill will require maximum effort. Comments from our friends on the coasts painting the state or the whole South as lost and sneering comments about brothers and sisters marrying and the like are not helpful. That way of thinking actually colludes with the work of the far Right in leaving our region neglected and abandoned. Yet that is exactly what I often see in the comments section of articles about Tennessee in national LGBT media.

If individuals and organizations want to be helpful, I recommend talking to those of us working on these issues in the South and finding out how to collaborate with us. We all cherish the same Constitution and it's time for us to work together in the states where we still face the challenge of living up to the fullness of equal protection of the law.