by Svante Myrick
If you’ve been watching what’s going on in state legislatures lately, you know that red-state lawmakers are all-in on attacking three things: abortion, voting rights and LGBTQ rights. And in Tennessee, a real alarm bell just rang.
The state House passed a bill that would effectively end marriage equality in the state, by allowing county clerks to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In fact, the law would allow clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses for any couple if they disagreed with the union. That could mean same-sex couples, interracial couples, or interfaith couples.
We don’t know how far this bill will go in the state Senate. But a sufficient number of Tennessee House members voted for it, and that’s disturbing enough—especially since President Biden just signed the Respect for Marriage Act to protect marriage equality at the federal level. It turns out this bill takes advantage of a loophole in the federal legislation, because the federal law does not say states have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
We may or may not be in same-sex marriages ourselves, or know people who are. But those of us who disagree with this inhumanity being inflicted on other Americans have to speak out. I’m proud to say, my mom, who is my hero in many ways, set this example for me.
Mom played the piano in our church for two decades. There came a time when the question of same-sex marriage came up, and individual churches within our denomination were allowed to make their own decisions about whether to perform them. Sadly, our church decided not to—and Mom resigned there and then.
She did that even though nobody in our family or immediate circle was in a same-sex relationship. She did it because she had the courage to stand up for other people even when she had no skin in the game herself. Later, when I became mayor of Ithaca, I had the honor to perform the first same-sex wedding in our city.
Mom taught me that we need to stand up for the full spectrum of civil and human rights, whether a particular right affects us personally or not. It is the moral thing to do. And that’s enough. But for those who need more convincing, it’s well-known that if someone is coming after a right that doesn’t affect you today, chances are they will come for rights that do affect you tomorrow. Authoritarians have a pattern of chipping away at rights until they win the big prize.
A classic example of this is the long road to undermining Roe and the right to choose. For years, people were called alarmists for warning that Roe could be overturned. Guess what, the alarmists were right.
Not only that, but when the Supreme Court did away with Roe last year, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the words that everyone feared: “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” That means ‘reconsidering’ the right to use birth control (Griswold), the right to same-sex intimate relationships (Lawrence), and the right to same-sex marriage (Obergefell).
The prospect is chilling, and where does this end? What about Loving v. Virginia, the case that affirmed the right to interracial marriage? Many of us would have said it’s alarmist to think that right could be lost. But again, the alarmists were right when it came to Roe. And the bill in Tennessee’s House appears to open a door to this possibility.
I’m deeply concerned about what is happening in Tennessee and the red flag raised by Justice Thomas. More than 40 years ago another Supreme Court justice, the late Thurgood Marshall, spoke words that are as apt today as they were then. Justice Marshall said: “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
Our rights depend on it.
(Svante Myrick is president of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director of People For and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest-ever mayor in New York state history.)