Tennessee Republicans pushing to undermine same-sex marriage are backed by major corporations
A group of 24 Tennessee Republicans that introduced a bill to undermine same-sex marriage rights are financially backed by prominent corporations who publicly champion LGBTQ rights — including Amazon, Comcast and Cigna. The legislation has received widespread attention because, as introduced, it made child marriage legal in Tennessee.
Tennessee Republicans are proposing an "alternative" form of marriage in Tennessee called a "Record of Marital Contract at Common Law." What was wrong with the existing form of marriage in Tennessee? Some people are upset that it is also available to same-sex couples. The new kind of marriage contemplated by the legislation would only be available to marriages between a man and woman.
The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), a right-wing advocacy group, has been pushing for the change. David Fowler, a former state senator who heads the group, says the bill is necessary for people with conscientious objections to same-sex marriage. "As a minister, I can't sign and affirm something that is contrary to my conscience," Fowler said. In Tennessee, "marriage certificates do not require a minister’s signature."
Ultimately, the legislation appears to be a scheme to challenge the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges, which extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The preamble to the bill spends pages on convoluted legal arguments attempting to poke holes in Obergefell. It claims that there is "uncertainty" about the enforceability of Article XI, Section 18 of the Tennessee Constitution, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. (There is no uncertainty. The Obergefell decision prevented such provisions from being enforced.)
The bill cites the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the 1887 case of Meister v. Moore, and Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. All of this culminates in the specious argument that Obergefell only applies to "civil marriage" and does not apply to "common law marriage."
The authors of the bill conclude the Supreme Court lacked "the authority to eradicate, alter, or modify the pre-legal and thus natural institution of marriage between a man and a woman acknowledged in human civilization throughout time and not conceivably subject to elimination by a constitutional amendment contingently appearing in our nation in the nineteenth century and which in no way purported to deny human realities universally acknowledged and practiced throughout history."
18 of the bill's 24 co-sponsors, including primary sponsor Senator Janice Bowling (R), signed a 2017 legal filing arguing that while Obergefell recognized same-sex marriages, the ruling did not apply to parental rights. The legislators sought to deny parental rights to a lesbian mother who was divorcing from her partner. FACT was also the driving force behind that effort. It was unsuccessful.
Bowling is seeking to turn back the clock in more ways than one. During a February 2020 committee hearing, Bowling argued that early childhood education is "not in the best interests of children." Instead, according to Bowling, the state should encourage women to stay at home and focus on parenting.
But the "Record of Marital Contract at Common Law" doesn't just exclude same-sex couples. It also makes child marriage legal again in Tennessee. Until 2018, child marriage was legal in Tennessee. In 2018, the state passed a law "banning Tennessee marriage of minors under 17." Prior to that, the non-profit Unchained at Last noted that there were "numerous cases of children 16 and younger" getting married in Tennessee. These children suffered high rates of abuse.
The "Record of Marital Contract at Common Law" removes the age requirement for "common law" marriages. "There is not an explicit age limit," Representative Tom Leatherwood (R) acknowledged during a committee hearing. Representative Mike Stewart (D) called the legislation a "get-out-of-jail-free card for people who are basically committing statutory rape."
Facing a backlash, the bill sponsors introduced an amendment on Wednesday to limit these new marriages to adults. But whether or not that amendment is ultimately incorporated into the bill, it remains a radical effort to turn back the clock. And yet, the sponsors of the bill have received thousands from companies that publicly declare their strong support for LGBTQ rights.
For Pride Month last year, Cigna plastered its social media with support for LGBT rights. In June 2021, Cigna tweeted “Happy #PrideMonth! Cigna is proud to be a supporter and ally to the LGBTQ+ community through inclusion, diversity and celebration of our unique differences.”
In a statement published last June, Cigna celebrated its “long-standing” support “for the LGBTQ community” while pledging to be “deeply committed to eliminating any and all barriers as we work toward true health equity for the LGBTQ community.”
Since 2020, Cigna has donated $19,000 to 13 of the bill's sponsors.
During Cigna's April 27 annual meeting, there will be a vote on a shareholder resolution requesting that the company "Cigna publish an annual report, at reasonable expense, analyzing the congruence of political, lobbying and electioneering expenditures during the preceding year against publicly stated company values and policies, listing and explaining any instances of incongruent expenditures, and stating whether the identified incongruences have led to a change in future expenditures or contributions." Cigna urged shareholders to vote against the resolution, stating that a "request for explanatory declarations for every political engagement or political contribution made is not only unfeasible, but would be counterproductive to the Company’s engagement in such matters."
Cigna did not respond to a request for comment.
Comcast has branded itself as a champion of LGBTQ rights. In June 2021, Xfinity tweeted, “Pride isn’t just a celebration in the month of June. It’s a moment, a promise, a journey, and an awakening. Pride is the love we share. And with Xfinity, it’s Pride all year.”
In 2021, Comcast created a “virtual ‘Pride World,’” which featured “events, Pride floats, Pride flags, and even a Pronoun Guide for employees.” Comcast’s corporate website also includes Yvette Miley, Senior Vice President of MSNBC and NBC, stating, “Some people may think the LGBTQ rights journey is done and the struggle is over, but it isn’t. Our job is to continuously educate.”
Since 2020, Comcast has donated $14,750 to eight of the bill's sponsors.
Comcast did not respond to a request for comment.
FedEx has a section of its website dedicated to “[showing] our pride.” A statement published on April 4 says, “We pride ourselves on being a diverse and inclusive business… We envision a culture where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and can be their true authentic selves at home, at work, and in the community.”
The statement goes on to outline the ways that FedEx is “investing in inclusion.” “We donate both money and time to nonprofits creating safe spaces, providing academic and career opportunity, and equipping allies in support of the LGBTQ community,” the website reads.
Since 2020, FedEx has donated $10,000 to 11 of the bill’s sponsors, including $750 to Bowling.
FedEx did not respond to a request for comment.
AT&T touts that it has been an LGBTQ+ ally since 1975 and claims that it has a history of opposing LGBTQ+ discrimination inside and outside AT&T. During Pride Month last year, the company encouraged everyone to “celebrat[e] and stand in unity with the LGBTQ+ community.” The company also hosts a year-round marketing platform for the LGBTQ+ and ally community called Turn Up the Love.
“We turn up the love by celebrating important moments for the community, by promoting acceptance, and by connecting you to important resources like The Trevor Project,” reads the initiative description.
Since 2020, AT&T has donated $7,700 to 12 of the bill's sponsors.
On May 19, AT&T shareholders will vote on a resolution asking the company to produce a report on "congruence of the Company’s political and electioneering expenditures during the preceding year against publicly stated company values and policies." AT&T management opposes the resolution.
AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon believes that “the rights of LGBTQ+ people must be protected.” The company has received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for five years in a row.
“We stand together with the LGBTQ+ community, were early and strong supporters of marriage equality and are working at the U.S. federal and state level on legislation, including supporting passage of the Equality Act,” an Amazon spokesperson said recently in an attempt to defend the company after it was dropped by Seattle Pride.
Since 2020, the company has donated $16,500 to six of the bill's sponsors.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.