Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs law that allows people to refuse to ‘solemnize’ marriage licenses

Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee signed a bill Wednesday that allows people in the state to refuse to “solemnize,” or perform, a marriage if they disagree with it.

Last week, Tennessee state lawmakers passed HB 878, which states “a person shall not be required to solemnize a marriage.”

In Tennessee, only certain people can “solemnize” the “rite of matrimony,” including state notary publics, government officials, and religious figures, according to state code.

According to Tennessee Code Title 36, which sets out the state’s rules on marriages and license requirements, “before being joined in marriage, the parties shall present to the minister or officer a license under the hand of a county clerk in this state, directed to such minister or officer, authorizing the solemnization of a marriage between the parties.”

HB 878 has drawn criticism since it was proposed last year.

Camilla Taylor, deputy legal director for litigation for Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ legal advocacy group, said that the law is an effort to “roll back recent progress by the LGBTQ community.”

“Tennessee House Bill 878 would be patently unconstitutional,” Taylor said in a statement to CNN. “Public officials don’t get to assume public office and then pick and choose which members of the public to serve.”

Last February, GOP state Rep. Monty Fritts, who sponsored the bill in the House, told the state Subcommittee on Children and Family Affairs that the law would allow an officiant to refuse to solemnize a marriage for “reasons of conscience or other religious beliefs.”

“As societal views change about what constitutes a marriage, officiants must be able to refuse to solemnize marriages that are contrary to their beliefs,” Fritts said during the meeting. “The government has a responsibility to protect the exercise of religious beliefs. … Those with the authority to perform civil ceremonies would also be permitted to refuse to solemnize marriage for reasons of conscience.”

CNN reached out to Fritts for comment, but he declined a phone interview.

Earlier this month, Tennessee GOP state Sen. Mark Pody told lawmakers the bill “has nothing to do with getting a license, it has nothing to do with the clerk’s required to give a license.”

But Taylor said the bill could potentially have far-reaching effects beyond same-sex couples and could also impact interracial and interfaith couples.

“My answer remains the same regardless of whether this bill was intended to target marriages of same-sex couples, interfaith couples, or interracial couples — it’s unconstitutional because the Constitution prohibits public officials from discriminating against members of the public based on their personal beliefs,” Taylor said.

“Government officials can’t target people based on who they are and require them to use a different process to obtain marriage licenses relative to everyone else. The effect of forcing same-sex couples to go through a different process relative to everyone else—whether by demanding that they use a different door, or that they wait for a different public official to issue them a license— would be to stigmatize them and communicate that their government thinks their marriages are less worthy than everyone else’s.”

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