Opinion » Viewpoint

The Right’s Last Rites

Kelsey’s “Turn the Gays Away” bill is the death knell for Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriage.

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The endgame for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society has surely arrived — though conservatives in the Tennessee General Assembly are desperately crafting reactionary legislation to shield their worldview from the inevitable collapse of the state ban on marriage of same-sex couples.

Shelby County state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and state representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) filed legislation last week which would go so far as to limit access to commerce for LGBT people and their families in Tennessee.

The “Turn the Gays Away” bill (SB 2566/HB 2467) would make it harder for married same-sex couples to obtain goods and services in Tennessee. The bill allows any “person or religious or denominational organization” to refuse services, food, housing, insurance, medical care, counseling and much more to any individual in a same-sex couple.

The proposed legislation is worded so broadly that most businesses in Tennessee would be considered “persons” allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples (in effect, non-persons).

For a case in point, let’s look at a specific couple whose rights are recognized federally and in some states but not in Tennessee.

Jonathan Franqui, a civilian, married active-duty U.S. Navy Senior Chief Dwayne D. Beebe in the fall of 2013 in Maryland. Shortly thereafter, Beebe and his family were reassigned to Millington, here in Shelby County. The Navy’s orders in effect relocated the couple to a state that constitutionally forbids recognition of their marriage.

Among the possible consequences for Jonathan and Dwayne:

● The couple lives in family housing on the naval base in Millington, but they could be refused housing off base because they were legally married in another state.

● Jonathan receives military health insurance through the U.S. Navy, but could be refused healthcare services from the many hospitals and clinics in Shelby County with a religious affiliation.

● If Jonathan and Dwayne should attempt to hire a caterer or make reservations at a restaurant to celebrate their wedding anniversary with a party in March, they could face trouble finding one that doesn’t object to their marriage.

But by comparison, Jonathan and Dwayne are in a better situation than the vast majority of same-sex couples in Tennessee who don’t receive their housing, insurance benefits, and medical care from the federal government.

Under the provisions of this bill, a state-licensed counselor could refuse couples access to therapy. If private child-welfare agencies should ban placement of children in the homes of same-sex couples, as the bill permits, the number of children languishing in foster care would surely rise.

The rationale for the proposed bill is obvious — to create a back-door ban on marriage equality. State constitutional restrictions on marriage enacted in the previous decade clearly would not survive court challenge.

Increasingly, federal judges are striking down state marriage bans based on equal protection and due process as provided by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Anyone who disagrees should read the recent decisions handed down by federal judges in super-red Utah and Oklahoma.

LGBT people and their families are accustomed to legislation targeting their rights and welfare in Tennessee, but welcome surprises do happen. Last year, state representative Karen Camper and state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis introduced the “Dignity for All Students Act” (SB 1124/HB 0927) which enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature. The bill seeks to enhance the state’s anti-bullying efforts in schools by adding specific protections against:

“… any written, verbal, or physical conduct that substantially interferes with a student's educational benefits, opportunities, or performance, and that is based, all or in part, on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, academic achievement, sexual orientation, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, or physical appearance of either the student or a person with whom the student has an actual or perceived association.”

The proposed law would empower educators to define acceptable conduct, promote a safer environment for students at school and promote academic achievement. Two years ago, gay students living in Gordonsville and Ashland City, respectively, completed suicide. Friends and family reported that Philip Parker, 14, and Jacob Rogers, 18, had each endured years of anti-gay bullying at their respective schools prior to their untimely deaths.

The risk factors that lead to such terrible and tragic ends are numerous, but inclusive anti-bullying policies would provide safe environments and increase protections for all students.

Some Shelby County lawmakers are looking forward to the future when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people and their families, while others, unfortunately, are dwelling on past battles in a war that ultimately won’t end in their favor. n

Memphian Jonathan Cole is chair and president of Tennessee Equality Project.

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