GOP governor signs marriage law that could set the stage for a challenge to Obergefell

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Gov. Bill Lee (R) of Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee (R) of Tennessee Photo: Tennessee Governor’s Office

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has signed a bill that states individuals “shall not be required to solemnize a marriage” if they object based on their “conscience or religious beliefs.”

The language of H.B. 878 focuses on “solemnization” – the act of performing a wedding ceremony. The list of people who can legally solemnize a marriage under Tennessee law includes all religious leaders, judges, county clerks, notary publics, and other mayors and legislative members.

LGBTQ+ advocates believe the legislation is designed to give these officials the right to discriminate against LGBTQ+ couples, though state Rep. Monty Fritts (R), the bill’s primary House sponsor, said the bill is intended to stop young people from committing elder abuse by marrying old people to access their bank accounts.

When the legislation was introduced last year, some took it to mean clerks could refuse to grant marriage licenses to those they oppose, including same-sex couples, but the bill’s primary senate sponsor, state Sen. Mark Pody (R), said it won’t allow government officials to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples (In 2016, Pody proposed a law allowing state officials to ignore the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage equality nationwide. He also supports transphobic bathroom bans).

Officiant Eric A. Patton explained, “Solemnization is not issuing a license. When the clerk issues you a license, it’s issuing you a license. They are not performing the marriage rites.”

Many have pointed out that there is no actual reason for the law aside from granting the license to discriminate, since there is currently nothing on the books in Tennessee requiring ordained folks to officiate marriages they’re against.

Patton told WKRN in March that he believes the legislation is merely trying to test the limits of marriage equality.

“There’s nothing in the law right now that says anybody has to do any kind of marriage at all, so there’s no clarification that this bill provides,” he said. “This bill does nothing, essentially, except open the opportunity for a lawsuit… The way they have vaguely worded this is that they’re trying to invite a Kim Davis-type lawsuit to go up against Obergefell, because they’re wanting to test the marriage equality law as it stands.”

Gov. Lee does not appear to have released a statement on his decision to sign the legislation. Last year, he signed seven anti-LGBTQ+ bills last year, including bans on drag performances, gender-affirming care, and trans athletes playing on women’s and girls’ sports teams.

And in January 2023, he announced his administration was rejecting $8.8 million in federal funds provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for HIV prevention and treatment.

Left unsaid was the fact that some of those dollars had made their way to programs run by groups associated with transgender healthcare. After a months-long outrage campaign by right-wing media, Gov. Lee threw the baby out with the bathwater and deprived the state of millions in federal dollars.

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