Hope for Marriage Equality in Tennessee

Nationwide evangelicals in the Protestant tradition and Catholics are the religious groups most opposed  to marriage equality. Can the LGBT community in Tennessee, a state that has more than its fair share of evangelicals, ever have any hope for same-sex marriage? I believe it does based on the Massachusetts marriage equality victory in a state over 50% Catholic. Additionally, another huge asset that Tennessee has going for it is the commitment to equality that we discovered among young law students, straight and gay, at the University of Tennessee Law School.

On April 16th, Karen Kahn and I spoke at the UT Law School about our book, Courting Equality, and the history of our struggle in Massachusetts to achieve same-sex marriage equality. The straight and gay students in the Lambda Legal group were informed, open-minded, and committed.

Prior to travelling to Tennessee, I read an article on Tennessee attitudes about marriage equality by Chris Sanders, the president of the Tennessee Equality Project. Sanders, using 2008 data from a Middle Tennessee State University poll, points out that 66% of those surveyed in TN opposed gay marriage. Discouraging news. He also cites the 2008 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, noting that 51% of Tennesseans consider themselves part of the protestant evangelical tradition–while the national average is 26%. With such overwhelming numbers of evangelicals in the state, it is not surprising that anti-LGBT legislation continues to emerge in the legislature.

But we offer the experience of Massachusetts as a source of hope. In our heavily-Catholic state, our Supreme Judicial Court in November 2003, nonetheless ruled in favor of marriage equality. Our legislature which is more than 50% Catholic (in 2004 it was 67% Catholic), protected the court decision from a 2008 ballot amendment to undo marriage equality.

MassEquality.org and those close to the lobbying process over the 4 1/2 years since the court decision came down assert that having ordinary people come out and tell their stories to their families, communities, and legislators won hearts and minds.

In contrast to the news on the numbers of evangelicals in Tennessee, Sanders has good news too. First, he cites a 2008 Williams Institute analysis of US Census data for Tennessee that shows a 33% increase in the number of same-sex couples who are identifying themselves on government surveys. This step of  “coming out” is critical in changing hearts and minds in families, communities, the legislature, and in religious communities themselves. Second, Sanders points out the obvious but often ignored fact that, “many members of the GLBT community come from and continue to be part of evangelical congregations.” He  added “we already have thousands of connections.” Indeed they do. Read more of what Sanders has to say . . ..

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