Tennessee passes bill allowing officials not to perform same-sex marriages

Two male groom figurine cake toppers sit atop a same-sex marriage wedding cake with a rainbow flag in background.
Two male groom figurine cake toppers sit atop a same-sex marriage wedding cake with a rainbow flag in background. | Getty Images/YinYang

A new Tennessee law will allow public officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages if their religious beliefs make them unable to do so in good conscience. 

Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law House Bill 878 last Wednesday.

The Republican-controlled Tennessee Senate approved the bill in a 27-5 vote earlier this month after the House of Representatives passed the legislation in a 74-22 vote last year.

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While the vote fell along party lines, one House Democrat joined all House Republicans in supporting the legislation. 

The bill's text declares, "A person shall not be required to solemnize a marriage if the person has an objection to solemnizing the marriage based on the person's conscience or religious beliefs." The legislation amends Tennessee Code Annotated Section 36-3-301, which outlines the requirements for solemnizing a marriage in the state. 

A fiscal note from the Tennessee General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee found that "The proposed legislation is not expected to have any significant impact on the number of marriages solemnized in Tennessee nor on the number of marriage licenses issued; therefore, any fiscal impact to state or local government is estimated to be not significant." 

The bill's legislation comes nearly nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges established a right to same-sex marriage.

Following the bill's passage in the Senate, LGBT advocates rallied on Capitol Hill in Nashville in opposition to the bill allowing government officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. 

"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," Molly Whitehorn, an organizer with the Human Rights Campaign, told The Tennessean

"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." 

Republican Rep. Monty Fritts, who sponsored the bill, argued before a subcommittee last year that "officiants must be able to refuse to solemnize marriages that are contrary to their beliefs" even as "societal views change about what constitutes a marriage."

"The government has a responsibility to protect the exercise of religious beliefs," he said. "Those with the authority to perform civil ceremonies would also be permitted to refuse to solemnize marriage for reasons of conscience."

Following the Obergefell ruling, a county clerk from the neighboring state of Kentucky received national attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples due to her religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. 

Kim Davis of Rowan County was arrested and spent five days in jail in 2015 and continues to face legal challenges to this day, including fines, after declining to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

After becoming governor in late 2015, Republican Matt Bevin changed Kentucky requirements to make it so that county clerks would no longer be required to sign off on marriage licenses. 

A report compiled by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty last year identified additional states where public officials can opt out of performing same-sex marriages as Mississippi, North Carolina and Utah. 

Davis is not the only person to face consequences for refusing to perform same-sex marriages following the Obergefell decision. Yanicka Parker, a court specialist in Broward County, Florida, was fired from her position in 2016 after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses due to her religious beliefs.

Similarly, in 2018, Root, New York, Town Clerk Laurel "Sherrie" Eriksen was subject to an investigation by the state after declining to provide a same-sex couple with a marriage license because of her beliefs about marriage.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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