Tennessee Again Tries to Undo Marriage Equality, Force Court Case

Tennessee demonstration

After multiple failed attempts, right-wing Tennessee lawmakers are again trying to undo marriage equality in the state — and apparently hoping to send the issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

State Sen. Mark Pody and Rep. Jerry Sexton, both Republicans, last week introduced the Natural Marriage Defense Act, which would prohibit government officials from “recognizing any court ruling that affirms same-sex unions, and specifies they cannot be arrested for failing to comply with court orders that do so,” The Tennessean of Nashville reports. Pody, who has claimed God called him to stop same-sex marriages, was a force behind previous bills to this effect introduced in 2015 and 2017, both of which failed to pass.

The new bill contends that the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling doesn’t apply to Tennessee because the state had both a law and a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman. Many other states, however, had such statutes and amendments, and the Supreme Court found that they violated the U.S. Constitution, so the Tennessee bill is on shaky legal ground.

If the bill became law, it would almost assuredly be challenged in court, but it contains language that would require the state attorney general to defend it — indicating that its proponents are hoping it could result in the Supreme Court reconsidering marriage equality, said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ rights group. That’s “the far right’s dream scenario,” he told The Tennessean.

Sexton was cagey about whether the bill would encourage a court case. “What we have to do is we have to pass laws that go back to the courts and let them be challenged,” he told the paper. “I don’t know that this bill will do that. I’m not advocating a lawsuit or anything. We’re bringing it up for the discussion.” He and Pody may change some of the legislation’s text, he said.

Sexton also claimed the marriage equality ruling produced “confusion” about what constitutes a legal union in the state and suggested that Tennessee may not have a valid marriage law. That also defies legal logic, as the Supreme Court’s ruling is clear.

Sanders said LGBTQ Tennesseans and allies would unite to oppose the legislation, which could result not only in the loss of marriage equality but of billions of dollars in federal funding for state social programs.

“If it moves, certainly, you will see an outcry in this state like you’ve never seen,” he told The Tennessean. “That will absolutely ignite huge numbers of people engaging the legislature.”

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