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The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill on Monday that allows county clerks to refuse to certify marriage licenses that go against their personal beliefs. The vague language of the bill gives room for local officials to deny marriage equality to LGBTQ+ couples, interracial couples and interfaith couples.
Introduced by Rep. Monty Fritts (R-Kingston), Tennessee House Bill 0878 adds a single line into the state code that 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.”
Claiming an attack against “civil liberties and rights,” Fritts denied the bill would be used to refuse licenses to same-sex couples during debate on the House floor, according to local station WBIR.
His Democratic colleagues disagreed.
“This type of legislation is harmful, not only in its practice but in the messages it is sending about who has rights in our cities, in our state and in our country,” Representative Justin Pearson (D – Memphis) responded. “In doing this, it is helping fuel people who do not care for inclusion, people who do not care for love.”
Marriage equality under threat in Tennessee
In December, President Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act into law. The legislation forces states to recognize out-of-state marriage licenses. It doesn’t, however, force states to recognize same-sex, interracial or interfaith marriages of couples who already live in that state.
The quick passage of the federal bill, which gained support from moderate Republicans like Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), came after the Supreme Court signaled it would be willing to overturn landmark precedents that protected same-sex and interracial marriage.
In his majority opinion striking down Roe v. Wade abortion rights, Justice Clarence Thomas called for the Court to re-evaluate other cases, including rulings on interracial and same-sex marriage. The move has appeared to embolden states like Tennessee.
In 1967, SCOTUS ruled in Loving v. Virginia that bans on interracial marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court made a similar ruling for same-sex marriages in 2015 with Obergefell v. Hodges.
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said after signing the Respect for Marriage Act.
Republicans move to gut marriage equality
Meanwhile, the Tennessee House bill raises fears that other conservative states will follow suit. For example, all of Oklahoma’s five Congresspersons and two Senators voted against the Respect for Marriage Act.
Human Rights Campaign blasted the bill in a statement on Tuesday.
“Extremist Tennessee lawmakers are unrelenting in their discriminatory attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. 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,” said Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow
Many states, including Tennessee, already allow religious leaders to refuse to officiate weddings they disagree with. Yet HB 0878 goes even further, making it possible for LGBTQ+, interracial and interfaith couples to be denied marriage licenses across the state.
The bill will next move to the Senate, where it will be discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 13.