Local 8 Now (WVLT) reports that the Morgan County Government has passed a resolution urging the General Assembly to protect the religious freedom of those opposed to marriage equality. You can read the resolution here. What follows is the response of the Tennessee Equality Project.
To the Honorable Don Edwards, Morgan County Executive:
Dear Mr. Edwards:
I greet you on behalf of the members of the Tennessee Equality Project throughout the state. We take a keen interest in the work of local governments in Tennessee. Your County Commission's recent resolution calling on the Governor and the General Assembly to protect the religious liberty of those who oppose equal marriage rights for same-sex couples caught our attention.
You noted that many Christians hold literal beliefs about the Bible and that they take the Bible to condemn same-sex marriage. As you are certainly aware, the Bible sanctions a variety of forms of marriage including polygamy and Scripture includes exhortations not to marry at all. But I take your point to mean that you wish our state government to protect those Christians who believe that marriage can only be between one man and one woman at a time. Addressing the protection of those who have religious reservations about divorce and remarriage no doubt would have hindered passage of the resolution.
I can assure you that our organization supports the First Amendment rights of the citizens of this state. No congregation or minister can be compelled to participate in a same-sex marriage. The June 26 Supreme Court marriage decision only applies to state governments and their subdivisions such as county governments. Private citizens and organizations such as churches may continue to hold, express, and teach whatever religious beliefs they like about marriage including their opposition to the Supreme Court's ruling.
To our knowledge, no congregation or minister in the state has been forced to participate in a same-sex marriage and none have been taken to court over a refusal to participate in such a marriage. If you are aware of any examples in Morgan County or anywhere in the state, please make us and the media aware of them.
If the threats to religious liberty you are referring to happen to include the practices of county clerks who wish they were not required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, our answer must be different altogether. While elected officials may wish for the past, they must continue issuing marriage licenses on an equal basis when acting in their official capacity. The Legislature will not be able to reverse the Supreme Court of the United States.
I remind you of that point because the resolution cites the Tenth Amendment, which concerns the rights of states. But states may not do as they wish, and that is all for the good. Our country fought the Civil War over this very point and sadly had to revisit the issue in the 1950s and 1960s as we confronted state-sanctioned segregation. The Fourteenth Amendment limits the powers of states in the clearest possible language. Here is some of the language in Section 1: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Elected officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including the Fourteenth Amendment.
The best advice I can offer you is to look squarely at the situation and see that no one's religious liberties have been compromised. People in Morgan County continue to have the right to disagree with the ruling. If I could add to that a bit, I would urge you to get to know your gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors and fellow citizens. Search your hearts and consider your duties to them, even as you continue to hold views that might differ from theirs.
I can sense the indignation in your community that led to the resolution. I ask that you consider the great pain it has caused others, others who perhaps feel isolated and threatened as a result of it. Such mutual understanding can lead to productive dialogue and it may make the situation more bearable for all.
I welcome the opportunity to speak further with you about these matters.
Tennessee is making national headlines again and not for reasons that make us proud.
Rep. Rick Womick has been trying to get county clerks to ignore the Supreme Court's marriage ruling. And yesterday national LGBT outlets picked up an open letter to the LGBT community in The Tennessean written by the pastor of the Inglewood Baptist Church in which he calls on Christians to "come out" and engage in civil disobedience if necessary.
In the subject line of the post, I purposefully noted that there is a "false" sense of persecution. In the Supreme Court's marriage ruling, our opponents actually lose nothing, as Michelle Bliss, our former public policy chair recently noted to me. Congregations aren't forced to marry any couple. And by licensing the marriages of same-sex couples, county clerks are not depriving different-sex couples of their rights.
Nevertheless, the shrill cries of persecution continue. Either these leaders really believe they are being persecuted because they don't understand the way the law works or they know better but are trying to manipulate the public. In any event, the LGBT community and our allies have a problem.
Misinformation, whether through manipulation or ignorance, leads to bad lawmaking and hinders the kind of acceptance our community needs in order to be safe and to thrive.
In my position, I do what I can to provide accurate information about the Supreme Court's ruling and its impact, but it is absolutely critical that you do your part as well. When you see or hear phrases like "the LGBT community is going to sue churches" or "the ruling means clergy are going to have to marry everyone now," you need to be clear that ministers and congregations still have their First Amendment rights and that the ruling only applies to state governments and their subdivisions such as county governments.
If you're receiving this email, this point is obvious to you. You know what the ruling does and doesn't do. But many of our neighbors don't. And this misinformation is the source of many of the calls for "religious freedom" and making laws based on "sincerely held religious beliefs" that bleed over into areas of law where they don't belong.
That's it. That's all I'm asking you to do today--correct misinformation. I'm not asking you to give or to volunteer in any formal role. Calmly and rationally help your neighbors understand what's really at stake in the marriage ruling. We can't stop Rep. Womick and the pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church from trying to whip people into a frenzy. But we can talk to the same people whom they think of as their audience and provide a clearer understanding.
I believe in those conversations and I hope you do, too.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the comments of the Rev. Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church, in The Tennessean.
It's not about you: The whole first section of Pastor Shrum's piece is founded on a basic error. In it he argues that some Christians have capitulated to the Supreme Court's ruling and that now other Christians will be faced with the question of whether to "compromise."
Why is the pastor mistaken? The pastor errs because the Supreme Court's decision binds the State of Tennessee, in other words, state government. It doesn't have anything to do with the action of any faith community. The June 26 ruling doesn't require any pastor or any congregation to sanction any marriage that runs contrary to their beliefs. The pastor should carefully read the Supreme Court decision and the 14th Amendment.
A choice? Of course, Pastor Shrum didn't resist the temptation of throwing in a quick "being gay is a preferred choice, sexual desire gone awry." No serious person who studies the matter believes this; reference the American Psychological Association if you have doubts. Pastor Shrum should consider being autobiographical and tell us how and when he chose his heterosexual attraction. I think self-reflection actually could help him have a better dialogue with the LGBT community.
Delusions of martyrdom: In the next section, Pastor Shrum dramatically suggests that the "ruling made every Christian in America a potential law-breaker" and that Christians will face "persecution" and, moreover, that "civil disobedience may be the order of the day." Since congregations are not forced to marry same-sex couples, how again will there be any law-breaking? And what forms will this persecution take? He gives us no hint, only scary fantasies. So why would civil disobedience be necessary? I don't think he can actually answer these questions because he hasn't really thought through his position.
Coming out when you've never been in: In the final section, Pastor Shrum plays with the phrase "coming out" and urges Christians to do so. But what he fails to understand or remember is that people of faith have been coming out with their positions for years. Some have been quite vocal for decades against the LGBT community, while others have been quite vocal in support. To whom is he speaking?
I think what he is trying to capture is the excitement that might attend an identity of being counter-cultural. But such excitement is usually reserved for new reformist or revolutionary movements, not for more of the same old rhetoric we've heard for decades. So while I can't go along with Pastor Shrum's counter-cultural charade, I can offer him some comfort in saying that it's not necessary. First, he's not being persecuted. Has his congregation been forced to host a same-sex wedding? Has he been sued successfully because of his stance? Of course, not. Second, if he wishes to take on the excitement of the counter-cultural mantle, let him become a prophet within the Southern Baptist Convention and preach to his friends about LGBT youth homelessness that comes when families reject their children on religious grounds. Let him decry the murders of transgender women. Let him lead a call to repentance for Western Evangelicals and fundamentalists who at times have facilitated anti-LGBT laws in Africa. Let him turn Southern Baptist congregations into safe spaces that will work to decrease LGBT suicide in this country.
That would be a real coming out we could all celebrate. And if may be so bold, I think it would please God as well.
Chris Sanders, M.Div.
Executive Director, Tennessee Equality Project
TEP denounces State Representative's attempt to get county clerks to ignore Supreme Court marriage ruling
Today it was reported that Rep. Rick Womick has sent a message to county clerks urging them to ignore the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Supreme Court ruling overturning the state ban on same-sex marriage.
The Representative's comments, if acted upon, could temporarily deprive people of their right to marry and would result in substantial legal expenses for county governments who would surely lose if challenged in federal district court. Taxpayers would pick up the bill.
It's time to move forward, not back to the years of couples lacking basic protections for their relationships. The Supreme Court has ruled. We need to look at ways of living and working together with our neighbors of all sexual orientations and gender identities for a stronger Tennessee.
*The Representative's statements are another reminder that we will face a tough legislative session when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes. We call on the LGBT community and allies across the state to get involved at this link and prepare a strong defense.
While it's important to remind the public that LGBT people are everywhere, allies are, too. And they certainly came out in force in Dickson today at our latest Summer of Love tour stop.
Of the 15 adults present, 12 were allies. Some brought their children. I tried not to let it show, but it was emotional for me because it was yet another reminder that we're not alone in the struggle for full equality in Tennessee. The more we reach out, the more I think we'll find a welcoming hand.
Resources for youth: We spent a lot of time talking about how allies can help. And as we discussed the problem of LGBT young adults being kicked out of their homes by families that refuse to accept them, it became clear that we could identify homes where they could stay. And it occurred to me that if we had the time, we could probably do that in every county in Tennessee. Imagine that! A network for rejected rural LGBT youth.
Safe spaces: We also talked about safe after-school spaces for teens and identified programs that might be a fit. And when we talked about Tennessee Open For Business, which is really a safe space program for LGBT people seeking to work or do business, the group lit up. They took program window clings and began rattling off the names of businesses that might participate.
Tennessee Equality Project is grateful to Bob Kucher and Pacer Harp for hosting the event and we are pleased that group is planning to meet next month. We think that they will bring lasting change to the Dickson area.
The news broke today that the EEOC has ruled that job discrimination based on sexual orientation is already illegal because it is a form of sex discrimination, which is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Commission had already decided that gender identity discrimination is sex discrimination and, therefore, illegal a few years ago.
The rulings are both historic and, I think, the real beginning of the end of job discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. But I have some questions and maybe you do, too.
1. Is this the final word on the subject? Probably not. The link above is to a Washington Post piece by Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. In it, he notes:
"The interesting question now is how many circuit courts will go along with the EEOC’s new interpretation of Title VII. The EEOC’s views on the scope of Title VII are considered persuasive, but not binding, authority on the courts. The next president could appoint commission members who feel differently about the meaning of Title VII, and they could reverse this divided opinion. Either way, a circuit split on the issue could be resolved by the Supreme Court in the next few years."
So it will take court challenges to make the ruling stick in the various federal districts and circuits around the country. A conflict among the circuits could get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court where we will likely get the final word.
2. Should we stop trying to change federal, state and local law? No, if we can find ways to advance explicit protections from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, we should pursue them. In fact, the ruling may give new life to such efforts. It is still a good idea to pursue the Chattanooga non-discrimination ordinance, for example. It's good for each employer to have clear protections so that LGBT employees don't have sue in order to get them.
3. Should I talk to HR about changing the employee handbook? Maybe. If you have a relationship of open communication with your human resources representative, it might be worth having the conversation. Many HR professionals will read about the EEOC ruling in trade publications over the coming weeks and may initiate changes internally.
4. Does the ruling apply to all employers? It does appear that it will apply to most commercial (for profit) employers and to state and local governments. Smaller employers may not be affected and many religiously affiliated employers will not be affected or not affected in exactly the same way that public and commercial employers will. There is ongoing debate in the legal community about how Title VII applies to religious employers such as religiously affiliated schools. When in doubt, consult an attorney.
5. What can I do if I believe I have been discriminated against on the job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity? You can consult an attorney with the real possibility that your case will move forward. It may not be quick or easy, but these two EEOC rulings should now give you a much firmer footing for proceeding with your complaint. You can also contact the closest EEOC field office at this link.
The backlash against the Supreme Court's marriage ruling is coming sooner or later. There has been talk of a special session. While we may avoid that fate, it's still coming. Whether now or in January, it will be one of the toughest legislative sessions in years. There will be bills purporting to protect pastors, businesses, and elected officials from having to deal with our community. In other words, we will face a storm of hatred and discrimination and we will have to fight like never before.
We are setting up POWER Teams across the state. Sign up now and we'll set up training sessions starting in late September that run throughout the fall. You'll learn about legislation, working with the media, rallying support, social media campaigns, and communicating with legislators. Those who attend the two-part training sessions will gain advocacy skills and a POWER Team shirt.
We need you. Sign up for the POWER Team near you at the link.
David Payne, who coordinates Tennessee Open For Business in the Knoxville area, reports the following new members of the program:
"Bring It” Food Hub, Memphis
Chattanooga Wedding Officiants, Chattanooga
Darron Kidwell, Edward Jones Investments, Knoxville
Sapphire: A Modern Bar and Restaurant, Knoxville
The Hill, Knoxville
Lee Law Group, Johnson City
Movement Arts Collective, Red Bank, TN
Greene Skirts, Chattanooga
RFC Co, dba Johnstone Supply, Knoxville.
Tennessee Equality Project is pleased to welcome them all. If your company would like to join free of charge, it's easy at this link.
Question: Aren't LGBT people already protected by federal and/or state law?
Answer: No, the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" are not found in federal employment law. Look up the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act, and you will not find those words included in the text.
Question: How does the proposed ordinance apply to the private sector?
Answer: It doesn't, except that passage will show Chattanooga is a welcoming city and that will attract even more talented people to the area. The ordinance itself only covers city government jobs.
Question: Have other local governments in Tennessee passed similar ordinances?
Answer: Yes. Metro Nashville, the City of Knoxville, the City of Memphis, and Knox County have passed similar ordinances.
Question: What about restrooms? Won't people feel uncomfortable?
Answer: The key issue with restrooms is safety. This year OSHA has started to recommend that employers allow people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. A transgender woman, for example, faces the risk of being attacked in a men's restroom and that is an unacceptable risk. Transgender people enter the restroom that matches their gender identity in order to be safe and use the restroom, not harass others.
Question: Where can I find the text of the proposed ordinance.
Answer: You can find it at this link.
There's a lot of talk in the national media about what's next. Some of it seems spot on. Some of it feels far away from Tennessee. Here are some items to provide a sense of what's next in Tennessee.
1. Finishing the job on marriage equality in Tennessee. The Supreme Court ruling was the end of one process and the beginning of another. It struck down state bans on marriage by same-sex couples, but it didn't guarantee quick implementation, as we saw in many states. TEP marriage sentinels worked hard to monitor the compliance of county clerks around the state and, with the Decatur County situation resolved, we're at 100%. DMV compliance is high and fully supported at Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security headquarters. State government and University of Tennessee system employees are getting equal benefits and Tennessee Board of Regents schools have also begun the process. Local government employees are beginning to get notification that they are included, too. We need to continue to monitor all these developments, but Tennessee is standing out in its implementation of the Supreme Court ruling.
2. Avoiding a special legislative session. The day of the marriage ruling, some members of the Tennessee House began calling for a special session in order to advance bills designed to curtail the access to and benefits of marriage for same-sex couples. It appears we may avoid a special session, and I am proud of the work the Tennessee Equality Project policy team did in reaching out to legislative leaders, even during the holiday. So part of "what's next" is doing all we can to avoid a rush to legislative discrimination.
3. Negative bills will eventually come, though. Even if we avoid a special legislative session, we can expect negative bills allegedly designed to protect pastors, businesses, and even county clerks from the marriage ruling. It will take an incredible effort to defeat them.
4. Local advances. I don't see much prospect for positive state legislation when the General Assembly convenes. But we can advance a strong and positive agenda in county and city governments. You can check out our ideas here. And right now there are things we can do to bring back Chattanooga's non-discrimination ordinance!
5. Comprehensive human rights protections. We need sexual orientation and gender identity added to laws against discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, etc. As I noted, I would not expect them at the state level. Even at the federal level, the climb is steep. There are steps we can take to make ourselves safer here and now, though. We can expand the Tennessee Open For Business network, which is the best way for businesses throughout the state to show they don't discriminate. Your business can join at this link. And we can advance inclusive anti-bullying protections in local school districts around the state, as I mentioned in the local advocacy agenda mentioned previously.
We all know there is plenty of work to do. It's time to use our momentum to consolidate the marriage victory, hang on through the storm of negative legislation, and make even more progress where we can. Your contributions can help at this link.