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Tennessee governor signs law protecting the right to refuse to “solemnize a marriage”


Despite the right of conscience provided in the First Amendment, this law is necessary because, as Justice Samuel Alito warned would happen, the Obergefell decision is being used to “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, R, has signed into law a bill that allows pastors, government officials, judges, and others allowed to perform marriages to refuse to perform a marriage solemnization if it violates their religious or conscience beliefs.

House Bill 878/Senate Bill 596 amends Tennessee Code Annotated Section 36-3-301 adding the following verbiage: “A person shall not be required to solemnize a marriage.”

Rep. Monty Fritts, R, who sponsored the legislation in the House, told the Subcommittee on Children and Family Affairs last year, “As societal views change about what constitutes a marriage, officiants must be able to refuse to solemnize marriages that are contrary to their beliefs. The government has a responsibility to protect the exercise of religious beliefs. … Those with the authority to perform civil ceremonies would also be permitted to refuse to solemnize marriage for reasons of conscience.”

Sen. Mark Pody, R, said the law “has nothing to do with getting a license, it has nothing to do with the clerk’s required to give a license.”

Under Tennessee law, county clerks issue marriage licenses, but only certain people can perform, or “solemnize,” a marriage, such as ordained ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and other spiritual leaders; certain local and state officials; state public notaries; and federal judges who reside in Tennessee.

Critics of the law claim that it discriminates against homosexual couples and violates the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared a right to same-sex marriage, as well as the so-calledRespect for Marriage Act” which codified Obergefell into law.

Pro-LGBT groups and legislators have been openly critical of the law.

State Sen. London Lamar, D, stated, “A lot of times these bills are introduced to intentionally and directly attack certain groups. Let’s just try not to have legislation to single out groups. We’re better than that as a legislature.”

Molly Whitehorn, an organizer with the Human Rights Campaign, stated, “Let’s be clear — this bill is intended to exclude LGBTQ+ folks from equal protection under the law. Marriage equality was settled by the Supreme Court in 2015, reaffirmed by a bipartisan majority in Congress in 2022, and there is overwhelming support nationally for same-sex marriage. All Tennesseans have a right to marry the person they love regardless of gender and should not be turned away by a government employee based upon that employee’s personal beliefs.”

Others claimed that Tennessee avoided violating Obergefell and the “Respect for Marriage Act” by making the law about a person’s right to refuse to solemnize a marriage rather than about issuing licenses.

Attorney Mary Bonauto, who argued on behalf of same-sex couples in Obergefell and now is the civil rights project director at LGBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. She stated, “You can still absolutely obtain licenses. 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.”

Others claim that Tennessee is attempting to have the law brought before the Supreme Court to get Obergefell reversed. Attorney Abby Rubenfeld, for example, stated that the law is “being set up intentionally that way, the same way the religious right set up challenges to Roe. They want to overturn it.”

When the Obergefell decision was delivered, Justice Anthony Kennedy, despite writing for the majority, stated that the rights of religious dissenters should be respected. He explained,

“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”

And Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissenting opinion, warned that Obergefell would lead to targeting those with opposing views on marriage and sexuality, writing,

“The decision will also have other important consequences. It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

Alito’s warning became reality as soon as Obergefell was delivered, creating a weapon for the pro-LGBT and anti-Christian left to target those who did not affirm same-sex marriage. Rather than simply granting the right for homosexual couples to “marry,” it instead created the right for individuals and governments to ferret out and harass those with opposing beliefs in an attempt to crush them into agreement or drive them from the public square.

This has included bakers, photographers, web designers, florists, public officials, and even jurors.

Justice Alito recently reflected on his warning regarding that latest category in a case where two potential jurors were ruled unfit to serve on a jury due to their religious beliefs.

A Missouri Department of Corrections employee, Jean Finney, had filed suit claiming retaliation from a co-worker following the announcement of her engagement in a same-sex relationship with the co-worker’s former spouse. Finney’s attorney asked potential jurors about their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality. Her attorney asked Judge Kate Schaefer to remove three jurors because of their religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin. Despite the fact that two of the three jurors had made it “very clear in that they could be absolutely fair and impartial in this case” Schaefer decided to remove all three.

The Supreme Court declined to take up the case last week based on a procedural issue, but Alito wrote,

“In this case, the court below reasoned that a person who still holds traditional religious views on questions of sexual morality is presumptively unfit to serve on a jury in a case involving a party who is a lesbian. That holding exemplifies the danger that I anticipated in Obergefell v. Hodges … namely, that Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government. The opinion of the Court in that case made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way, but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

The retaliation that is being inflicted on religious Americans by supporters of the Obergefell ruling and LGBTQ ideology is exactly why the law in Tennessee needed to be passed, and it’s also why so many are outraged at its passing.

A large swath of LGBT activists do not want a person to be able to refuse to affirm and refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding, or any other LGBT activity, such as transgender hormone experiments or surgeries, regardless of their beliefs.

Under the First Amendment, a person cannot be compelled to violate their religious beliefs —  whether it’s to “solemnize a marriage” or any other activity that goes against their deeply held religious beliefs or conscience. It is essential that the free exercise of religion for each person be protected. This law says nothing about LGBT issues. It says only that a person cannot be required to solemnize a marriage. That should be a comfort to all as this law ensures — and affirms — that the government cannot compel a person to violate their sincere beliefs.

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