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New Tennessee law allows officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages

From NBC: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a new law Wednesday that will allow public officials in the state to refuse to perform marriages if doing s

From NBC: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a new law Wednesday that will allow public officials in the state to refuse to perform marriages if doing so goes against their beliefs.


The measure, HB 878, is less than half a page-long and simply states that public officials “shall not be required to solemnize a marriage.” Those who can newly refuse include judges, county clerks and government officials. The law went into effect immediately on Wednesday.

Critics have said that the measure was crafted with the intention of allowing government officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Religious figures in the state have previously been permitted to refuse to marry same-sex couples.


An original draft of the legislation, which was introduced last year, stated that a person would be allowed to refuse to perform a marriage “based on the person’s conscience or religious beliefs.” The version of the law Lee signed does not specify under what criteria a person can decide whether to agree or refuse to marry someone.


Representatives for Lee and state Sen. Mark Pody, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the legislation in Tennessee’s Senate, did not immediately return requests for comment. Republican state Rep. Monty Fritts, the lead co-sponsor of the legislation in the state’s House, could not be reached for comment.


Same-sex marriage has been legal across the United States since the Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015 guaranteed the right to gay and lesbian couples. In 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law a measure that also codified same-sex marriage into federal law, months after the fall of Roe v. Wade instilled fear in the LGBTQ community that their right to marry could also be in jeopardy.


Mary Bonauto, who argued on behalf of same-sex couples in Obergefell and now serves as the civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit legal rights group, said the Tennessee law does not jeopardize the legality of same-sex marriage in the state.

“You can still absolutely obtain licenses,” she said. “It’s only about performing a marriage and there are a whole variety of individuals who can perform marriages and also potentially some private entities.”


Bonauto added that the law lacks clarity over its application and opens up the possibility for couples to be refused marriage for a whole host of reasons, including their race, religion or national origin.


“The law is so broad that it could really introduce a fair amount of randomness that I think many people may not find tolerable,” she said. “Or I think, on the other hand, maybe they will just ignore it because it was to satisfy a particular effect on the ground. Time will tell.”


Nathan Higdon, the chief financial officer for Tennessee LGBTQ advocacy group Knox Pride, condemned the measure and chalked it up as a political stunt on behalf of lawmakers trying to hold onto power.


“You perpetually have to shake up and stir up your voters back home,” Higdon said. “Either you’re doing really cool stuff or you’re doing really s—ty things that keep their attention so you can be like, ‘I stuck it to all the people you hate.’”


Support for same-sex marriage remains at an all-time high in the U.S., with 71% of Americans in favor, according to Gallup, which has been tracking sentiments around same-sex marriage since 1996. Among Republicans, 49% are in favor of same-sex marriage, Gallup found.


Higdon was skeptical that nationwide support for same-sex marriage would affect the everyday lives of LGBTQ Tennesseans.


“Get on a plane and come here,” he said. “I will show you the reality of being a queer person in queer Appalachia.”


The enactment of the law comes amid an unparalleled number of challenges to LGBTQ rights nationwide.


State lawmakers across the country have introduced and passed a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills within the last few years, with many of them aimed at limiting the rights of trans people in particular.


Last year, legislators introduced more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills, including 75 that were signed into law, according to a tally by the ACLU. The ACLU is currently tracking more than 440 anti-LGBTQ measures introduced in state legislatures so far this year.


Tennessee has emerged as one of the most restrictive states in regards to LGBTQ rights.


Several of the laws Tennessee has enacted include a measure that restricts gender affirming care for trans children and legislation that limits trans athletes’ participation in school sports. Last year, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to enact a law aimed at limiting drag queens from performing in the state before the law was later struck down in court.