Tennessee lawmakers are taking up a bill that would let cake makers, florists and other vendors refuse service to same-sex couples who wish to marry, even if the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage were struck down.
A Senate panel is scheduled to debate a measure next week meant to give businesses the explicit power to turn down same-sex ceremonies if they contradict "sincerely held religious beliefs." The bill comes as courts and legislatures around the country have been legalizing same-sex marriages, in some cases striking down state bans.
"We want to make sure we protect the conscience and religious freedom of businesses," said state Sen. Mike Bell, the bill's sponsor.
Senate Bill 2566 originally was filed last week by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Memphis Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kelsey handed the bill over to Bell, who had been a co-sponsor, on Thursday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to take the measure up Tuesday, but already it has drawn criticism. The Tennessee Equality Project, an advocacy organization, says the bill would authorize widespread discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
"This just sends the wrong message about Tennessee," said Chris Sanders, the group's executive director.
The measure is meant to preempt lawsuits filed against vendors who refuse service to same-sex couples. It also is intended to get ahead of the court challenges that have been filed in Tennessee and elsewhere challenging state bans on same-sex marriage.
A federal court ruled Wednesday that Kentucky could not deny recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The bill is unlikely to affect clergy or religious organizations, both sides in the debate say. Under the First Amendment, they cannot be compelled to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
But other vendors may have less power to turn couples away. Supporters of the bill cited disputes in Oregon, New York and elsewhere.
Sanders said turning away same-sex couples would be no different than discriminating on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity.
"Why not hang signs on the doors telling every group you don't want to serve?" he asked.
But other groups are protected legally from discrimination, said Bell, R-Riceville.
"I think it's more wrong to force people to violate their conscience," he said.
Companion legislation, House Bill 2467, also has been filed in the state House of Representatives by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville. Debate on that measure has not yet been scheduled.