TEP responds to Morgan County religious freedom/anti-marriage equality resolution

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.

Gratefully yours,

Chris Sanders

Executive Director

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  • commented 2015-08-01 12:23:57 -0500
    Thank you, TEP, for standing up for the rights of minorities in Morgan County and all over the State of Tennessee. It is important to push back on those arguments from groups that try to deny rights to citizens. I live in Morgan County and I am very bother by the wording in their Resolution. It appears to be vague in asking for protection based on “Traditional Bible Believing Christians” which seems to be a backdoor to discriminate against anyone not deemed by a group of people to have what they deem as “traditional” beliefs. I think it would be very beneficial to have Morgan County Executive to define and clarify in detail for legal purposes exactly what the county is referring to in that phrase. We need Morgan County to put in writing what it deems as a “Traditional Bible Believing Christians”….Again, Thank You TEP

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