Some real talk on what's next in Tennessee

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.


The Battle of Chattanooga Part 3: Return of the Non-Discrimination Ordinance

In November 2013, a combination partner benefits/non-discrimination ordinance passed the Chattanooga City Council and was signed into law by Mayor Andy Berke.  In August 2014 it was repealed by a majority of the voters.  Now Councilman Chris Anderson is bringing back the non-discrimination portion of the ordinance.  It is up for first reading on July 14. 

The ordinance adds sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the city's non-discrimination policy for government employees.  Marriage equality doesn't automatically bring workplace equality and there are no federal or state protections in statute for LGBT people.  So the policy is important.  It matches what Metro Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, and Knox County have already done. 

Advocates are encouraging citizens supporting the ordinance to wear red and attend the July 7 Council meeting.  RSVP at the link.

If your Chattanooga-area business, congregation, or community organization would like to endorse equal protection for city employees, it's easy.  Just endorse it at this form or email us at [email protected] and we'll add your name to a public list of endorsing organizations. 

One hardware store does not define East Tennessee

You probably saw the story about the hardware store owner in East Tennessee who put up the sign forbidding "gays" after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on marriage by same-sex couples. 

Sadly, one the results was predictable.  The whole region was painted with the broad brush of hate, even though people in East Tennessee widely reviled the store owner's actions. 

What's actually going on with businesses in East Tennessee and the movement for equality?  David Payne, a TEP volunteer, has been actively recruiting members of Tennessee Open For Business in the Region.  Here are just a few of the recent additions to the program:

Price & Associates REALTORS®, LLC
Smoky Mountain Media Group
Positively Living
Anchors Hair Company 
Bliss Home, Market Square
James Freeman Interiors
Tennessee School of Beauty 
Three Rivers Market 
L’Espace Motorcoach
Earthbound Trading
Top Shelf Express LLC
Parlour (aka Palmer Sampson Designs)
KS Absher 
The Knoxville Pearl 
Ijams Nature Center 
AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo)
La Roy’s Hair Salon
Nothing Too Fancy 
RFC Co. dba Johnstone Supply 
Chattanooga Ghost Tours
Katherine Stinnett Photography 
Sanctuary Massage and Bodywork
Amy Petulla, Attorney/Mediator

And what do members of Tennessee Open For Business pledge?  They pledge not to discriminate against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity and they pledge to serve their customers without discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Any business in Tennessee can join by filling out the form at the link

Will marriages begin immediately in Tennessee if the Supreme Court strikes down the ban?

I often get asked a great question--"Will county clerks immediately begin providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if the Supreme Court strikes down the ban?"

Maybe, but probably not.

Here's why.

First, most if not all county clerks will check with their county law director, who is probably going to be looking for guidance from the Tennessee Attorney General.  It's not clear how much time that process might take.

Second, clerks may be delayed because they need new forms from Vital Records in the Tennessee Department of Health.

Neither interpreting the opinion nor creating and sending out new forms SHOULD take long, but state government doesn't always work on our timetable.  It may take hours or days. 

The other issue to consider is that Supreme Court rulings often take effect 25 days later.  We don't know whether the situation will be different with this opinion.

So we're going to be ready for immediate marriages or the delays.  If the delays drag on at the state level or with individual county clerks, we will work with our partners at the ACLU-TN and other local attorneys to break through the logjam.

All Nashville candidates for Mayor support marriage equality!

Last night was the big mayoral candidate forum for the LGBT and ally community hosted by the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Stonewall Bar Association, Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, and Tennessee Equality Project.

Every candidate announced support for marriage equality and every candidate indicated a willingness to officate the weddings of same-sex couples. 

On the eve of the Supreme Court marriage ruling this is good news.  No doubt a general shift in attitudes around the country has helped.  But let's not forget the work of current Nashville Mayor Karl Dean who has taken so many first leaps in Tennessee.  Mayor Dean was the first in Tennessee to sign Freedom to Marry's pledge and he was the first to sign and work for an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance brought by the Metro Council.  His public stands on concrete issues, including his opposition to anti-equality state legislation, have sent a strong signal that Nashville is and must be a welcoming place.  It's great that all the candidates to replace him are in tune with where the city is heading.

Your safety on DAY ONE

If the Supreme Court strikes down state marriage bans, we fully expect several days of joyful celebrations as couples go get married.  We have not heard of any specific threats and we generally expect county clerk offices to be safe.  In many cases, the Sheriff's Office is close by or there is security on site, as there is in Nashville.

Nevertheless, opponents of marriage equality have been escalating their rhetoric.  Violence and other disturbances are still a possibility.  The bomb threat against the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center took place just last month.  We want you to be safe if you are going to get married or going to help once clerks start providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Follow these steps:

1.  Go together if you are getting married.  You have to appear together at the clerk's office in most cases if you are getting married.  If you are going as a marriage guardian, consider finding someone to accompany you.

2.  Remember that protests are legal.  Opponents are misguided, but they have the right to protest the Supreme Court decision.   They do not have the right to touch/strike you, block your entrance to the county clerk's office, or threaten you.  You may encounter protests.  If you do, contact us after you get your marriage license at [email protected] .

3.  If you are grabbed, blocked, or threatened, get to safety (which may include the inside of the clerk's office) and call 911, your Sheriff's Office (or Metro Police if you're in Nashville).  Do not risk harm to yourself; return when it is safe if necessary.  After you have contacted law enforcement, let us know at [email protected] or text 615-390-5252 and let us know your name, county, and situation.

4.  Major Emergencies.  If you hear gun shots or explosions, FLEE immediately.  Call 911 or local law enforcement.  After you get to safety and have contacted local law enforcement, contact us at [email protected] or text 615-390-5252 so that we can make others aware. 

Once clerks begin providing licenses to same-sex couples, we believe in the vast majority of cases that everyone will be safe.  No county government in this state wants violence on its property and we believe law enforcement and security will do everything in their power to make you safe.  It is prudent to be aware and have a plan in case things become dangerous, though.

Summer of Love Letter 3: "Will you marry me?"

The Summer of Love tour came to McMinnville today and we had our first marriage proposal.  Kris, the tour stop organizer, proposed to his partner Gregory on bended knee and 27 of us including allies were there to witness this incredible expression of hope and love.  We think there was another first as well.  It may have been the first public LGBT event ever in McMinnville.  It won't be the last, though.  I detected a strong interest among the group to meet on a regular basis.

We are grateful to Kris and Gregory for hosting us and for sharing their big moment with us.

The region, like much of the rural South, could use more moments that celebrate diversity and inclusion.  I was reminded of that on the way from Nashville.  I drove to Murfreesboro and caught Mercury Blvd. through Woodbury and on into McMinnville.  There are historical markers for the Trail of Tears and a spot where Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest rested on his way to what was then called Murfreesborough.  Ghosts of a bloody past peeking out from behind some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the state where wild turkeys and deer still roam (I saw both). 

I believe LGBT people and allies can help take the region foKrisGregory.jpgrward and I met a lot of people today who are going to try.


A word about wedding officiants who were ordained online

With the Supreme Court set to rule on marriage soon, many people are planning weddings.  One part of getting married is finding someone who can officiate the wedding and sign the license legally in Tennessee. 

Many people who were ordained online as ministers are stepping forward to offer their services.  Does that translate to a legal marriage?  Google searches pull up lots of ads and sites that say they are legal.  Is that true, marketing, some of both?

We're not attorneys at the Tennessee Equality Project, so we're not going to make a blanket statement.  We urge you to proceed with caution and consult an attorney.

Here's some information that may be of help to you:

*A 2015 Tennessee Attorney General opinion reiterating the Tennessee Code's stringent requirements for ministers to be able solemnize marriages generally and denying the right of Universal Life Church ministers specifically to solemnize marriages in Tennessee.  See the link.

*A 2012 New York Times piece indicating that Tennessee and a few other states generally do not consider online ordination valid for legal marriages.  Here's the link.

*A 2007 New York Times piece indicating that couples married by an online minister in some states are at risk.  The full story at the link.

What if you make a mistake?  This 1997 Tennessee Attorney General opinion indicates that mail-order or online ordained ministers are generally not permitted to officiate weddings in Tennessee, but that if couples have a ceremony, live together, and think they're married, the State will typically treat them as married, though there is the possibility of the marriage being challenged.  Read the whole thing here.  Note:  The County Clerk cannot, according to Tennessee law, challenge the ordination of the person marrying you, but others may be able to do so. 

So before agreeing to be married by someone, read this section of the Tennessee Code.  It lists current and former elected officials who may marry couples and it contains qualifications for clergy acting as officiants.  So if you choose a member of the clergy, you may want to ask whether they are 18 or older, whether they have the care of souls (typically meaning a congregation), and how they were ordained or designated a minister.  The law says their ordination must have been a "considered, deliberate, and responsible act."  The 2015 Tennessee Attorney General opinion cited above should be consulted on what that means.

In summary...proceed with caution, ask questions, and consult an attorney if you have doubts.

Tennessee County Marriage License Status

The following is a list of Tennessee counties in alphabetical order showing whether they are providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  NO means the county is not yet providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, frequently for technical and administrative reasons.  YES means the county is providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or is willing to do so.  The list will be updated frequently if the Supreme Court strikes down state marriage bans.  If you have an update on a county, email us at [email protected] .

01 Anderson YES
20 Decatur YES
39 Henderson YES
58 Marion  YES
77 Sequatchie  YES
02 Bedford   YES
21 Dekalb YES
40 Henry YES
59 Marshall YES
78 Sevier YES
03 Benton  YES
22 Dickson YES
41 Hickman YES
60 Maury  YES
79 Shelby  YES
04 Bledsoe  YES
23 Dyer YES
42 Houston  YES
61 Meigs YES
80 Smith YES
05 Blount YES
24 Fayette YES
43 Humphreys YES
62 Monroe  YES
81 Stewart YES
06 Bradley  YES
25 Fentress YES
44 Jackson YES
63 Montgomery YES
82 Sullivan  YES
07 Campbell YES
26 Franklin  YES
45 Jefferson YES
64 Moore  YES
83 Sumner YES
08 Cannon YES
27 Gibson YES
46 Johnson YES
65 Morgan YES
84 Tipton YES
09 Carroll  YES
28 Giles YES
47 Knox  YES
66 Obion YES
85 Trousdale YES
10 Carter YES
29 Grainger YES
48 Lake  YES
67 Overton  YES
86 Unicoi  YES
11 Cheatham YES
30 Greene YES
49 Lauderdale YES
68 Perry YES
87 Union YES
12 Chester YES
31 Grundy YES
50 Lawrence YES
69 Pickett  YES
88 Van Buren YES
13 Claiborne YES
32 Hamblen  YES
51 Lewis  YES
70 Polk YES
89 Warren  YES
14 Clay YES
33 Hamilton  YES
52 Lincoln  YES
71 Putnam YES
90 Washington YES
15 Cocke  YES
34 Hancock  YES
53 Loudon YES 72 Rhea  YES
91 Wayne  YES
16 Coffee YES
35 Hardeman YES
54 McMinn YES
73 Roane  YES
92 Weakley YES
17 Crockett YES
36 Hardin YES
55 McNairy YES
74 Robertson YES
93 White YES
18 Cumberland YES
37 Hawkins YES
56 Macon YES
75 Rutherford  YES
94 Williamson YES
19 Davidson  YES
38 Haywood YES
57 Madison YES
76 Scott YES
95 Wilson YES

Tennessee responses to anti-equality pastor in Clarksville

The Rev. Ed Manners, pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church in Clarksville, recently wrote a column gaining national attention in which he argued that same-sex marriage is a recruiting tool and that one's sexuality is a choice. 

National outrage matters and is predictable, of course.  But were there any Tennessee responses?

Fortunately, yes, there were.

First, Clarksville resident David Shelton wrote this superb response for the Leaf Chronicle, where the Manners column originally appeared.    You can read it here

The Tennessee Equality Project also offered a response on Tuesday when asked by Fox17.  You can view the report here.

As we get closer to the Supreme Court ruling on state marriage bans, we can expect more of the same...and probably for some time afterwards, too, if the Court strikes down Tennessee's discriminatory amendment.

If you are aware of anti-equality rhetoric in Tennessee, feel free to report it at [email protected]

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