Tennessee lawmakers still want to undo marriage equality

Adoption discrimination, anti-trans discrimination, "natural marriage," and more.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

The Tennessee state legislature’s 2019 session is barely a month old, and already the docket is chock full of bills targeting the LGBTQ community for discrimination and harassment — all sponsored by Republican lawmakers. Some are bills that were introduced in previous legislative sessions, others are borrowed from other states, and at least one is a novel attack on transgender people in particular.

Following one of the top priorities of the Christian right, lawmakers introduced a pair of bills that would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against certain would-be parents without risking losing state funding or other benefits. This includes refusing service not only to same-sex couples, but also unmarried parents and even non-Christians. One of the bills grants this exemption on the basis of an agency’s “sincerely held religious beliefs,” while the other offers a broader exemption on the basis of their “religious or moral convictions or policies.”

President Donald Trump endorsed such discrimination Thursday, and his administration recently granted a waiver to South Carolina on behalf of a Christian foster care agency that refused to serve a Jewish family. Texas has requested a similar waiver, and two states passed similar “license to discriminate” bills last year.

But furthering the interests of the adoption discrimination movement isn’t the only priority for these lawmakers. Another bill would create a similar license to discriminate for businesses across the state by “preempting” local policies. Municipalities across the state would be prohibited from imposing their own laws that affect a business’s nondiscrimination policies, minimum wage policies, family leave policies, or health insurance policies if those laws are more restrictive than state law — even if they’re designed to protect employees.


Another bill, introduced by Rep. John Ragan (R), purports to be about protecting people from indecent exposure in bathrooms, but its actual goal is to criminalize transgender and gender nonbinary people. The bill expands what counts as indecent exposure to include when “a person of the opposite sex” exposes themselves in a restroom or locker room.

In case there were any lingering doubts about whether the bill was written to specifically target transgender people, the text of the bill makes it clear: “A medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria, gender confusion, or similar conditions, in the absence of untreated mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, does not serve as a defense to the offense of indecent exposure.” In other words, any trans person who changes clothes in a facility that matches their gender could be charged with indecent exposure.

“I don’t care if they think they’re a woman,” Ragan said, confirming his intention.

A separate bill is designed to protect schools that similarly wish to discriminate against transgender students by prohibiting them from using facilities that match their gender identity. If such a discriminatory policy were legally challenged by a student or their family, the bill would require the state attorney general to defend the school district in court.


If that litany of anti-LGBTQ bills didn’t sound extreme enough, lawmakers have one more whopper in the hopper: as they have proposed before, they still want to undo marriage equality.

The so-called “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act” asserts that “[n]atural marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman as recognized by the people of Tennessee remains the law in Tennessee, regardless of any court decision to the contrary.” It declares the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision “unauthoritative, void, and of no effect” — comparing it to decisions that have upheld slavery, the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, and the internment of Japanese Americans. The bill directly instructs clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The last time lawmakers introduced such a nullification bill, the fiscal note concluded its passage would cost the state roughly $8.5 billion, because ignoring federal law would result in the federal government cutting funding for many of its vital programs.

Tennessee’s bills join anti-LGBTQ bills have also been introduced this year in Mississippi, Utah, Indiana, and South Dakota.