Sen. Mike Bell drops Tennessee gay wedding refusal bill

photo Sen. Mike Bell R-Riceville

NASHVILLE - Sen. Mike Bell on Tuesday shelved his bill aimed at protecting wedding-related business from lawsuits for refusing service to same-sex couple if it violates owners' religious beliefs.

The Riceville Republican, who took over as lead sponsor of the controversial "Religious Freedom Act" last week, said the legislation isn't necessary: Tennessee law already protects them.

Gay advocates, several dozen of whom showed up at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee to object to the measure, applauded the move.

"We are glad that the senator will not push a bill that says here's a class [of people] you can discriminate against," said Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Earlier Tuesday in Chattanooga critics gathered to object to the legislation, which said a person or group didn't have to provide services for a domestic partnership or marriage not recognized by the state based on their religious beliefs.

As Judiciary Committee members began their meeting, Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the bill's original prime sponsor who dropped the measure due to what he called conflicting messages from constituents, said it wasn't necessary to act on the bill just yet.

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That's because no court has ruled Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, Keley said. Legislative could wait until next year as a challenge to the ban, approved as an amendment to the state constitution in 2006, is decided.

Bell agreed to Kelsey's request. But the social conservative emphasized that after delving into the matter with three judges and "several lawyers," he was convinced the bill isn't needed anyway.

Existing state law allows businesses to turn away customers based on conduct they consider offensive, Bell said.

"I'm convinced that current law protects people of faith," Bell said.

That would hold up even if a court overturns Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriage, the lawmaker noted. Courts in states like Iowa and most recently Virginia have overturned such bans.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, concurred with Bell's assessment.

"I agree with Sen. Bell's analysis that presently Tennesseans cannot be forced to needlessly participate in activities that violate their sincere, constitutionally protected, religious beliefs," said Dunn, another social conservative, in a statement. Therefore his action today was understandable and makes perfect sense."