By sending letters demanding county clerks cease issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Tennessee attorney David Fowler is setting the stage for a lawsuit challenging marriage equality in Tennessee and beyond.
Last week, Tennessee attorney David Fowler sent a letter to all 95 of Tennessee’s county clerks demanding that they cease and desist issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His stated reasoning is that the clerks are violating Tennessee’s constitution.
Tennessee is only one of several states in the US that have anti-marriage equality clauses written into their constitutions; Virginia, as it happens, is another. However, in light of the federal precedent set by the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which made marriage equality the law of the land throughout the US, this should not matter. At the time of that decision, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery stated that Tennessee was required to abide by the Supreme Court decision regardless of the constitutional provision.
Nonetheless, Fowler is making the attempt to legally block same-sex marriages in Tennessee based on that exact constitutional provision. In an interview with the Washington Blade, Fowler rejected the statement of the Attorney General, stating, “It is indisputable that no court has declared the provision in Tennessee’s Constitution unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.” He then cited an obscure 1984 opinion by a previous Attorney General stating that a law must be considered constitutional “until it is declared unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Of course, Fowler’s point here is invalidated by the fact that both the Supreme Court and Tennessee District Court Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger have released separate injunctions forbidding the enforcement of Tennessee’s constitutional provision against same-sex marriage.
Fowler, a former Republican state Senator for Tennessee, is in this case serving as general counsel for the Family Action Council of Tennessee’s Constitutional Government Defense Fund. That group is associated with anti-LGBTQ hate group Focus On The Family.
The letter gives a deadline of Feb. 17 for the Tennessee state government to comply with its demands. And while Fowler has not directly stated that he and the group plan to sue Tennessee’s county clerks, he did state in his letter to all 95 clerks that the ministers he represents are considering “what steps should next be taken by them… to be assured that they are not affirming a form of civil marriage contrary to their beliefs.” So legal action may indeed be forthcoming.
This would not be the first time Fowler has attempted legal action to invalidate same-sex marriage in Tennessee. In 2018, he sued Tennessee’s Williamson County, arguing that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision had invalidated all of Tennessee’s state laws concerning religion. That case was dismissed.
Nonetheless, this has to be concerning for the LGBTQ communities of both Tennessee and Virginia, as well as those of any other state with anti-marriage equality clauses still written into their constitution. During the Trump administration, the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed significantly, and there is some concern that a case like Fowler’s, if taken to a high enough court, could reverse the precedent set by Obergefell v. Hodges and bring all those anti-marriage equality clauses back to life.
National Center For Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter dismissed these concerns in an interview with the Washington Blade, saying, “This is a political stunt, not a serious legal threat… If Fowler actually followed through on filing a lawsuit, it would be thrown out. Marriage equality is the law of the land, including in Tennessee.”
For our sakes, let’s hope Minter is correct.
Top Photo by Sixflashphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia