Marriage equality approaches the emerald city
On Friday, January 16 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced a landmark decision to hear marriage equality cases from Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky. Only recently, Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project briefed a gathering at OutCentral on the then eagerly awaited decision. From couples married in other states to straight LGBT rights advocates, one question resonated: “Where do we stand” if SCOTUS decides to hear the cases?
Upon arrival, participants were given a Wizard of Oz-style handout by political activist Christie Crowell explaining all the possibilities that could lie ahead, with the “poppy field” as home base. There are a number of variables, but make no mistake, we are NOT in Kansas anymore, folks! We’re in the home stretch, and the house is about to drop on someone.
“If the Supreme Court votes in our favor, they could reasonably make a decision allowing [same-sex] marriage by June 30,” says Sanders. “If they rule against us, it could set Tennessee back 15–30 years in the fight for marriage equality.”
How did we get here?
Tennessee’s current federal battle began with Tanco v. Haslam, the case filed October 21, 2013, on behalf of same-sex couples—all married in other states—whose marriages were not recognized by the state. On March 14, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger filed an injunction requiring the state to recognize the marriages of these same-sex couples. The courts issued a stay that was allowed to, well, stay. Tanco v. Haslam was then grouped together with cases in other states in the district and sent to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents argued that the authority to decide marriage regulations lies with the individual states. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the marriage bans did not violate the Constitution, ending the Pride Parade of civil rights victories for LGBT people.
SCOTUS has now granted the couples’ petition for a writ of cert., meaning the high court will review of the case. If we win, we could see same-sex marriage in our state by the end of 2015. If we lose, we may not see it in our lifetimes.
“Hopefully, the Supreme Court will resolve this issue,” says attorney and champion for equality Abby Rubenfeld. “If you’re legally married in one state, but step your foot out into another one and it’s not recognized, we can’t have a system like that in this country.”
Even if we win the case, though, the state could potentially come up with creative ways to resist, as other states have done. “Those types of political stalls are a waste of taxpayer money,” says Rubenfeld. “If states keep resisting court rulings granting marriage equality, they could be faced with attorney fees. It’s just a delay.”
The Tennessee Equality Project already has plans in motion, should the court grant Tennessee same-sex marriage. During the first few days, the group will refer LGBT couples to the counties that are the most receptive of the decision. But what if the clerks refuse the marriage licenses?
They took up an oath to uphold the Constitution. “Just let us know and we’ll take them to court,” says Rubenfeld, insinuating they couldn’t win a case like that. “It will be kind of fun.”
On the other hand, if SCOTUS rules that bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional, this would be a major setback for Tennessee. Our only option would be to develop a state legislature willing to take up the issue. With an assembly that’s currently roughly 75% Republican and 25% Democrat, it is possible but not likely in the near future.
“We now have 36 states that recognize same-sex marriages and it’s because of the movement and organizations like TEP,” says Rubenfeld. “If you had told me years ago that this would have happened by 2015, I would’ve said you were crazy.”
Both Rubenfeld and Sanders credit a wave of change for the progress we have made just in the past few years. As our culture opens up more and more to the normalcy of a LGBT family unit, the more we are growing and progressing as a nation. “I think people are over it,” says Rubenfeld. “Everyone’s just ready to move on.”
As the hearts and minds of people continue to change over time, so will the country. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, we are a people moving forward. As we sit at the table and break bread with our fellow human beings and celebrate our similarities, we hope we may live in a world where our marriages are no longer called into question. After all, it was not a rally, nor a protest, nor a court ruling that ultimately won women the right to vote: it was the changed heart of a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee named Harry Burn. And that is what it will take to win this fight: A change of heart for those in power.