Bill moving through state legislature challenges gay marriage in Tennessee

“Natural Marriage Defense Act” seeks to redefine marriage as between a man and a woman


Anna Yarinsky

Legislation that proposes to eliminate gay marriage in Tennessee has attracted media attention in recent weeks for its implications for the state’s increasing climate of conservatism.

Representative Jerry Sexton and Senator Mark Pody have introduced the “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act” into the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Senate. A similar bill did not advance last session. Should the new bill pass, it would prohibit same-sex marriages and make it possible to arrest marriage clerks who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Representative Sexton and Senator Pody did not complete multiple requests from The Hustler to comment on their bill. Sexton did speak to the Tennessean explaining that the bill is meant to address his belief that Tennessee currently has no valid marriage law.

The bill counters the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell vs. Hodges, which made gay marriage legal in the United States. According to the Tennessean, if the bill does pass through the state legislature it will likely be challenged in court by many parties on grounds of being unconstitutional.

If a federal district court rules that the law cannot be enforced, the state will have to appeal that ruling and defend the law, which could take the case to the 6th circuit federal appeals court and even as far as the Supreme Court.

Chris Sanders, the executive director of LGBT rights advocacy group the Tennessee Equality Project, believes that returning the issue of gay marriage to the Supreme Court is the legislators’ goal with this bill.

“This may not be the bill that does it, it may be part of a ten or twenty year strategy, but they eventually are hoping for a court that agrees with them and a bill that can make it all the way back to the Supreme Court,” said Sanders.

The bill is now under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Children and Families subcommittee. It is likely that it will be passed by the conservative supermajority in the legislature.

Representative Jason Potts, a Nashville democrat who serves on the Children and Families subcommittee, believes that the bill will be passed in his committee as he is the only democratic member. He anticipates that it will face more opposition in the Judiciary Committee, which has more democrats.

“I think that’s just the harsh world we live in here at the state level is that [conservatives] are not open to people who are different than they are,” said Potts. “It’s sad because they always crutch on their religious beliefs, but if you want to go by that then you should be treating all people the same .”

One concern with the bill is the high costs of the legal fees that would go into defending the legislation in court. Sanders noted that Tennessee taxpayers would feel the financial impact of the bill.

The bill could also have negative implications for the state’s economy given the repercussions of Tennessee being perceived as discriminatory.

[The bill] will likely spark a backlash, risking tourism and commerce from across the US and the world,” said the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Political Science Professor John Geer. “Tennessee, to attract more jobs from various businesses, needs to send signals of inclusion, not exclusion.”

The bill may come as a surprise to Vanderbilt students, situated as we are in a more liberal part of Tennessee. Nashville Mayor David Briley recently signed an executive order making Nashville the first southern city to recognize LGBT-owned businesses.

However, the Natural Marriage Defense Act shows the extent of the conservatism that lies in the state’s more rural areas.

“I grew up in rural Tennessee, so I kind of have a perspective on both sides,” said Potts. “They have to represent their districts as long as I do too, but you want to do what’s best for the state and not what’s best for a specific district.”

Though Sanders noted that Tennessee is getting closer to the mark of 50% of people polled approving of marriage equality, there are many in rural areas who are still strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.

“It’s important to us to have a presence around the state, so there will be people coming from all over the state to speak on the hill [to fight the bill],” said Sanders.

He noted that the Tennessee Equality Project is treating the threat to marriage equality very seriously and has a “day on the hill” in which volunteers come protest at the state capitol in downtown Nashville planned on March 5th.  

Sanders expressed concern about the message that the Natural Defense of Marriage Act will send.Whether it gets passed or not, our legislature is spending time attacking LGBT people and that sets a tone in our state of discrimination,” said Sanders.