Gay marriage decision prompts celebration, resistance in Chattanooga

Gay marriage decision prompts celebration, resistance in Chattanooga

June 27th, 2015 by Andy Sher, Joy Lukachick Smith and Kate Belz in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Doug Strickland A 100-foot rainbow flag is unfurled during a celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage held Friday, June 26, 2015, at Ross's Landing in Chattanooga, Tenn. Supporters gathered to praise past and current activists in their work towards marriage equality.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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IMPLICATIONS IN TENNESSEE

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, III said the Supreme Court decision will have impacts on existing statutes as well as many state forms. He declined to go into what specific laws will require changing, saying that in many instances, that will have to be determined.

He did provide 5 guiding points to clerks:

1. Same-sex couples may be lawfully married in Tennessee

2. Tennessee must recognize a marriage between a same-sex couple who has been lawfully married in another state

3. “Our advice to county clerks this morning was to commence issuing marriage licenses as soon as possible.”

4. When it comes to solemnization (conducting and overseeing a ceremony), Tennessee has a long list of officials authorized to solemnize marriages. “Our best advice is do not discriminate.”

5. “This is a decision by the highest court in the land and we respect the decision. Every department in state government will be affected in some way so implementation will take time. It will be very important for everyone to be patient, reasonable, and understanding during this process.”

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Document: Read the Supreme Court's opinion overturning bans on gay marriage

OBERGEFELL ET AL. v. HODGES, DIRECTOR, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, ET AL.

REACTION TO SUPREME COURT SAME-SEX MARRIAGE DECISION

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said, "We applaud the governor and the attorney general for ensuring that government offices in Tennessee implement the Supreme Court's ruling swiftly. Committed, same-sex couples in Tennessee have waited long enough to enjoy the dignity and protections of marriage. Today's ruling and its prompt implementation will bring great joy to the thousands of Tennessee families who just want to be treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else."
 

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called the decision "an unfortunate and fundamentally wrong opinion. In 2006, not even a decade ago, over 80 percent of Tennessee voters issued a strong mandate in favor of traditional marriage. Today, the Supreme Court declared that mandate null and void."

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said that, while he disagrees with the decision, his office will nonetheless work with other state officials "to take the necessary steps to implement" it. Earlier in the day, he told Tennessee's 95 clerks they cannot block same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses under the high court's 5-4 ruling. "Our best advice in these instances is pretty simple: Do not discriminate. That's the holding of the court today."
 

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said that "with today's decision we see that love and respect has triumphed and we rejoice knowing that every person has the right to marry the person they love. Today is a day that Democrats celebrate with those couples as they build strong families while securing a future for themselves, in Tennessee and across our nation."
 

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes said, "Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman. If a change was to be made, it should have been allowed to play out through the democratic process but, unfortunately, today's judicial activism short-circuits that ability. While this has long been pushed by the Democrats' agenda, the issue is far from settled."
 

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said, "A public official in many instances may hold a different view regarding laws and court actions. Ours is an administrative office, and legal sources advise we don't have the ability to choose which duties to perform."

 

Former Tennessee Sen. David Fowler

Former Tennessee Sen. David Fowler, now with the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said that "today a handful of Americans on the Court have stripped the people of the freedom to democratically address the meaning and role of society's most fundamental institution, marriage." He predicted that "when people begin to experience the effects of this ruling in ways they never envisioned, the Court may find that it has only awakened a slumbering giant."

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange acknowledged the ruling was now the law of the land, but said he expected "the focus will now turn to the exercise of one's religious liberty. I will continue to defend the religious liberties of Alabamians and ensure that people and businesses honoring their religious beliefs are protected."

 

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens 

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution "does not permit bans on same-sex marriage. In our system of government, the Supreme Court bears the ultimate responsibility for determining the constitutionality of our laws. Once the Supreme Court has ruled, its order is the law of the land. As such, Georgia will follow the law and adhere to the ruling of the Court."
 

The Tennessee Equality Project

The Tennessee Equality Project said, "we celebrate today's Supreme Court ruling striking down state bans on the marriages of same-gender couples" and called on state government and Tennessee's 95 county clerks, who issue marriage licenses, to stop enforcing the ban. "There is no legal authority for denying or delaying equal protection of the law for these couples," the statement said.
 

Jim Daly with Focus on the Family

Jim Daly with Focus on the Family said that "although this result was predicted by many observers, the action of the Court is nonetheless startling in its rejection of a societal understanding of marriage that goes back to the dawn of civilization. Ultimately, however, no court can change the eternal truth that marriage is, and always has been, between a man and a woman."
 

Tennessee state Rep. Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden

Tennessee state Rep. Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said they are drafting a "Tennessee Pastor Protection Act." Terry said the intent is to "protect all religious clergy from performing same-sex marriages, as well as providing legal protection from being forced to perform same-sex marriages on church property."

 

There was no point in waiting another day.

When Phyllis Wood and her girlfriend, Rhiannan Pierce, heard Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, they decided they had waited long enough.

As soon as Pierce had a break at her pizza restaurant job in Hixson, the couple picked up their 4-year-old daughter and headed straight to the the Hamilton County Courthouse.

"We are on our way," Pierce typed on Facebook. "When I get back to work I will be a married woman to the woman I love and the family I cherish!"

U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 5-4 ruling is not only hard-fought victory for gay rights, advocates say, but the culmination of a massive change of heart among the public on the matter of gay marriage.

"We fought this for so long," said Kat Cooper, co-chair of the Tennessee Equality Project, who grew emotional as she absorbed the news. "Today is just a monumental day. To be able to display your love like other couples, to be validated like that — I can't explain that feeling."

But many conservatives and clergy lamented the decision, saying same-sex unions go against biblical law, and vowing to continue upholding marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

"Today a handful of Americans on the Court have stripped the people of the freedom to democratically address the meaning and role of society's most fundamental institution, marriage," said David Fowler, head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. As a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, Fowler spearheaded the movement to pass a 2006 state constitutional amendment affirming the traditional definition of marriage.

The ruling sparked initial confusion among front-line local officials who provide marriage licenses. Some, like county clerks in Wayne County, Tenn., and Pike County, Ala., protested by saying they would get out of the marriage business altogether, refusing licenses to either straight or gay couples.

Many others, even while voicing disapproval of the ruling, said they would respect it as the law of the land.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement that the state "will comply with the decision and will ensure that our departments are able to do so as quickly as possible."

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery harshly criticized the decision, but said his office will still work "to take the necessary steps" to implement the law.

"Our best advice in these instances is pretty simple: Do not discriminate. That's the holding of the court today," Slatery said.

By midday Friday, Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said his office would begin issuing licenses immediately.

Though a public official "in many instances may hold a different view regarding laws and court actions," Knowles said, the clerk's role is administrative, "and legal sources advise we don't have the ability to choose which duties to perform."

At the courthouse, photographers and television cameras waited. For three hours, no one came. Then Pierce and Wood quietly came through the door to sign the paperwork.

"It's amazing, I've been in tears all day long," Wood said to a group of reporters crowded in the lobby.

She and Pierce have been together more than two years.

"Our daughter doesn't understand. I told her, 'One day you'll understand and realize it was such a big day for us,'" Wood said.

As they stepped outside on the courthouse lawn, family members and strangers gathered to watch.

"I was just coming to pay my taxes," whispered one man. "But I couldn't miss this."

After the couple exchanged their vows, their daughter, Spring, ran and hugged Pierce and Wood's legs.

"Are you married yet?" she asked.

They became the first gay couple in Hamilton County to be legally recognized as married.

Some clerks in other Tennessee counties said Friday they needed more information before they could proceed.

"I'll have to find out what I'm supposed to do. I'm just trying to do it correctly," said a woman who works in the Sequatchie County Clerk's office. When asked what she would do once Slatery's direction came, she responded, "I guess I will have to [issue licenses], or retire."

In Georgia, state Attorney General Sam Olens told local government offices they must issue licenses to same-sex couples, and called for agencies to "immediately review their practices."

In Dade County, Ga., Probate Court Judge Kerri Carter said at noon Friday that her software had been updated to print out a new license: Instead of signature boxes labeled "Bride" and "Groom," they now say "Applicant 1" and "Applicant 2."

In Alabama, Attorney General Luther Strange provided no guidance for counties. He acknowledged in a news release that the ruling was now the law of the land, but vowed to "continue to defend the religious liberties of Alabamians and ensure that people and businesses honoring their religious beliefs are protected."

THE RULING

Friday's ruling came after two decades of litigation over gay marriage rights across the U.S. and in Tennessee.

The state and Haslam were named in the Supreme Court case decided Friday, after same-sex couples appealed a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan to disallow same-sex marriage and refuse to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Tennessee Assistant Solicitor General Joe Whalen, among others, argued before the Supreme Court in support of maintaining the ban.

But the high court's ruling Friday was widely expected. Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay-marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion released Friday, just as he did in the court's previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996, The Associated Press reported.

"No union is more profound than marriage," Kennedy wrote, joined by the court's four more liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

"The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest," Kennedy wrote. "With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter."

The four dissenting justices — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — each wrote their own opinions.

"Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. "Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be. The majority's decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The majority expressly disclaims judicial 'caution' and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own 'new insight' into the 'nature of injustice.'"

The Obama administration has backed the right of same-sex couples to marry. Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2012.

Praising Friday's decision, President Barack Obama called it "justice that arrives like a thunderbolt."

CLERGY RESPONSE

Some ministers and photographers gathered at the Hamilton County Courthouse Friday, offering their services for free.

Local minister Lee Holland came to fulfill a promise made in 2003. If Tennessee ever legalized gay marriage, she vowed, she would go to the courthouse and offer to marry couples for free.

"I knew that Tennessee would be one of the last to change. I just wasn't prepared for it to be today," Holland said. "This is a historic day for all Americans."

Other church leaders across Chattanooga, meanwhile, grieved the decision, saying it undermines one of society's foundational institutions.

"I am deeply saddened by the decision because no human institution has the authority to redefine what God in His infinite wisdom has established," said Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Don Holwerda, church administrator at First Presbyterian Church, was rereading the church's policies on marriage Friday, but said they would not change.

"Our missional and denominational stance say marriage is one man and one woman," Holwerda said.

Many ministers and their congregations grappled with the question of how to best to love their neighbors while adhering to doctrine they say does not change with court rulings or popular opinion.

Two conservative Tennessee legislators are drafting legislation designed to "protect all religious clergy from performing same sex marriages," including "legal protection from being forced to perform same sex marriages on church property."

Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, call their bill the "Tennessee Pastor Protection Act."

If the issue is "truly about equality of civil liberties and benefits, then this ruling should have minimal legal impact on churches," Terry said in a news release. "However, if the issue and the cause is about redefining marriage to require others to change their deeply held religious beliefs, then the concerns of many will be valid."

CELEBRATING

On Friday night, a crowd of more than 150 gathered down at Ross' Landing to celebrate the day.

Lightning criss-crossed the sky, but spirits were high despite the weather.

Like many at the rally, Chattanooga resident John Thomas was bedecked with a rainbow flag. He and his boyfriend have been together for about two and a half years.

Thomas said the Supreme Court ruling was not something he ever expected to see.

"Growing up, I never thought this was something that would be in my future," Thomas said.

Thomas and his boyfriend are not rushing to the courthouse, but they are glad to know they have the option when the time is right, he said.

Aleq Boyle is a Christian minister who attended the rally to support the Supreme Court's decision. He said after the ruling his fellow clergy members are uniquely challenged.

"The challenge for any real Christian out there is to work on the false perception that many Christians have put out and embrace what Jesus said — to love everyone and to treat others as you would yourself," Boyle said. "The Supreme Court has stepped up and done that for all of us"

Some couples reflected on how far they had come. Chattanooga Police Capt. Corliss Cooper said she will never forget when she graduated from the police academy 28 years ago and someone posted fliers around the office trying to peg her sexual orientation.

Friday, Cooper said, "I am equal."

Other couples were busy making plans. David Casson and Dan Angevine say they will go to the Bradley County Courthouse on Monday to get their marriage license.

"I never would have believed something like this will happen in my lifetime," said Angevine, who has been with Casson for five years. "There's no more hiding, no more covering up. I'm still overwhelmed by it."

Staff writers Tyler Jett and Louie Brogdon and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at kbelz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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