After years of banning same-sex marriage in Tennessee, couples were legally allowed to marry almost immediately following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on Friday.
But fully implementing and complying with the decision will take some time, cautioned Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.
“Everyone needs to be patient, reasonable and understanding during this process. It will not happen overnight, despite the best of intentions, but it will happen in Tennessee,” Slatery told reporters Friday afternoon. “And we’ll get this right.”
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Slatery’s office, on behalf of the state, officially argued against Tennessee allowing same-sex marriages or recognizing same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. Although he said he was “disappointed” with the court’s ruling, soon after the decision his office informed all 95 county clerks to start issuing licenses for same-sex marriages.
“In light of (Friday’s) decision clearly establishing a constitutional right to marry, we think that the wise decision is to comply with the case and promptly issue the marriage licenses,” Slatery said.
He didn’t know of any clerks flatly refusing to issue the licenses. As of late Friday, at least 55 county clerks had either issued licenses or said they were ready to issue licenses to same-sex couples, said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project.
Many of the other 40 counties cited “administrative reasons” as to why they weren’t ready to issue licenses.
“We’re not offering a theory beyond administrative reasons at this point. Fifty-five on the first day is pretty good,” Sanders said.
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He thought at least 200 licenses were issued Friday, but thinks many more will be issued next week. In at least several counties, clerks received many calls but were asked to issue few licenses. In Wilson County, Deputy Clerk Scott Goddall said the office received 14 calls but was only asked to issue one license.
Administrative issues affected some of the counties that issued licenses as well. In Davidson County, applicants waited several hours. The clerks office waited for the go ahead from the Attorney General and needed to update software related to the marriage licenses before starting to issue licenses.
There will be similar issues moving forward, affecting almost every department of state government, Slatery said.
“How many forms in state government refer to husband and wife? How many references in Tennessee code annotated refer to husband and wife?” Slatery said.
“Those are going to be some changes that take some time, and actually incur some expense.”
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In addition to practical changes in legal language, Slatery said the ruling may also affect the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Tennessee law affirms a business’ religious freedom rights, and is similar to laws in Indiana and other states that have received national attention.
“Well, I think that remains to be seen. Obviously, any exercise by the state or state officials…may be subject to some scrutiny if they were doing that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Slatery said.
“Those are some specific issues that I think we’ll be looking at in the days to come, but it does affect it.”
For now, Sanders said he and his organization plan to make sure each county clerk complies with the ruling. But after that, he hopes the decision could provide momentum to address issues with discrimination in housing and hiring in Tennessee.