A Tennessee lawmaker dropped a bill that would have let wedding vendors turn away same-sex couples after activists in Nashville and beyond waged an intense, weeklong campaign against the measure.
State Sen. Mike Bell announced at a hearing late Tuesday that he would delay consideration of Senate Bill 2566 until at least next year, saying that there was no need for the measure immediately. The bill would have let cake makers, photographers and other vendors refuse to work on same-sex ceremonies, even if courts strike down the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Several dozen gay rights activists turned out — many in red — to show their opposition to the bill, the culmination of a short yet heated effort to stop the legislation. Bell referenced that effort, saying he had heard from Tennessseans "from Johnson City to Memphis," for and against the measure, since taking over sponsorship of the bill just five days ago.
"I'm convinced that current Tennessee law protects our business owners from the type of lawsuit harassment we've seen in other states," said Bell, R-Riceville.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which helped to organize the show of force, said it may be true that state law currently allows businesses to turn away same-sex couples, but he said he remains satisfied lawmakers were willing to drop the issue.
"They think they found a solution for the time being, and we'll see how that plays out over the next year," he said. "They may be able to turn individuals away. What we're glad of is the state didn't step in and establish a class of people against whom you could discriminate."
Attention to the measure, dubbed by opponents the "Turn the Gays Away" bill, has ramped up since Republican leaders inKansas walked away from a similar bill late last week. Lawmakers in Ohio, Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma also have considered such legislation.
Supporters say legislation is needed to protect the religious freedoms of business owners who do not want to take part in same-sex ceremonies. They cite several cases in which vendors have been sued for refusing service, mainly in states that have passed laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.
Legislators in Kansas said the idea for their bill was first presented to them by policy specialists with the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Germantown Republican who first filed the measure, said he had conversations with the group but ultimately drafted the language himself.
"I would never introduce legislation that attempts to limit the rights of any Tennessean, whether straight or gay," he said in prepared remarks that he read at the outset of the Tuesday's hearing. "This bill was designed to protect a pastor, a rabbi or a singer from being sued and forced to participate in a same-sex ceremony against their will."