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VOL. 8 | NO. 27 | Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gay Marriage Marks First Day in Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was in Memphis taking a tour of the Nike plant expansion in Frayser when the highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was released Friday, June 26, in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Ballheimer and Alicia Wall celebrate their new marriage outside the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center Friday, June 26. They were wed by former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy the same day the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Haslam noted at the outset that the decision reversed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

“That being said, we will fully comply with the law, and we are instructing all of our departments in terms of how and what that means for each department,” Haslam added. “We touch a lot of different things, and now that marriage status is affected, that will affect a lot of our departments.”

Tennessee figured prominently in setting the framework for the nation’s highest court to decide the question of gay marriage.

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state’s ban on same sex marriages in a November 2014 ruling. Until then, other federal appeals courts had overturned similar bans in other states.

With conflicting appeals court rulings on the issue, Supreme Court justices had an issue that was ripe.

A month earlier, the Supreme Court had refused to hear an appeal from another federal circuit where the gay marriage ban had been struck down on appeal.

In January, the court announced it would hear the appeal of the six consolidated federal court cases in the Sixth Circuit in which the appeals court had upheld the gay marriage ban.

By 11:30 a.m. Friday, the Shelby County Clerk’s Office was issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in line with a memo sent to clerks across the state by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

Laura Harris and Nancy Wiers were married under a large shade tree just outside the clerk’s office shortly after being among the first to get a license.

That was also about the time state Rep. Bryan Terry of Murfreesboro announced he was drafting a “Tennessee Pastor Protection Act” for the 2016 legislative session that would allow church pastors to refuse to perform same-sex marriages on church property.

Some Memphis couples showed up at the clerk's office as part of plans by the Tennessee Equality Project, a 10-year-old political action group that had been organizing the response to such a Supreme Court ruling for months.

Meanwhile, Slatery met with the press in Nashville at 2 p.m.

“Today, the court redefined marriage by litigation, rather than by democracy,” he told reporters. “That said … it’s a decision by the highest court, and we respect the decision.”

In his written statement that followed, Slatery went further than Haslam on the question of the state’s referendum on gay marriage.

“For the court to tell all Tennesseans that they have no voice, no right to vote, on these issues is disappointing,” he wrote. “The court, nevertheless, has spoken, and we respect its decision.”

By 3 p.m. Friday, two-thirds of the clerk’s offices in other counties were still refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. An hour later, more than half were issuing licenses.

More than 100 people gathered at 5:30 p.m. outside the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Cooper-Young for a series of marriage ceremonies coordinated by the center and the Tennessee Equality Project.

“I can’t believe that we are standing here talking about this today,” said Will Batts, executive director of the center. “People all over the country are doing the exact same thing right now tonight. Millions of people who have been waiting for this day and it’s here.”

Former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy performed the first in the series of marriage ceremonies.

Jennifer Ballheimer and Alicia Wall repeated the vows Mulroy read, exchanged rings and Mulroy ended by saying, “I now pronounce you wife and wife.”

Justin Smith, Shelby County chairman of TEP, noted that there were more ministers than couples at the event. But Smith said the ruling will be met by a lot of weddings in the days and weeks to come.

“This is our day,” he told the crowd on the small front lawn of the community center. “We are finally equal in the eyes of the law.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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