UPDATE: Tenn. senator abandons 'Religious Freedom Act'

The Senate sponsor of a bill to protect business owners from lawsuits when they refuse to serve same-sex couples based on religious beliefs abandoned attempts to enact the measure Tuesday, saying it is unnecessary because Tennessee law already provides such protections.

Opponents of the bill (SB2566) hailed the announcement by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, as a victory.

There had been widespread criticism of the proposed “Religious Freedom Act,” ranging from a Facebook page for voicing opposition to about 30 protesters at the Legislative Plaza Tuesday.

“We are glad that the senator will not push a bill that says here's a class (of people) you can discriminate against,” said Chris Sanders, executive director of Tennessee Equality Project, which supports gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

At the outset of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, asked Bell publicly to put off any action on the bill until next year. Kelsey, who had turned over sponsorship of the measure to Bell last week, defended the measure, saying it was designed to protect the rights of business owners with religious beliefs incompatible with same-sex marriage.

But Kelsey said that no court has authorized same-sex marriages in Tennessee and action on the bill could be delayed until next year, awaiting a decision on pending litigation.

Bell said he would agree to Kelsey's request, but went on to say his research – talking to “three judges and several lawyers” – led him to the conclusion that the bill is not needed.

Present state law, he said, allows businesses to turn away customers based on conduct they consider offensive and can be distinguished from laws in other states.

“I'm convinced that current law protects people of faith,” Bell said and that would be true even if a court holds that Tennessee must recognize same-sex marriages solemnized in other states, as in Kentucky and Virginia.

Officially, Bell put the bill in “general subcommittee,” which means that it will be held without any action – though it could be revived with the filing of a notice.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who sponsored the bill in the House, issued a statement saying he agreed with Bell's move.

“I agree with Senator Bell’s analysis that presently Tennesseans cannot be forced to needlessly participate in activities that violate their sincere, constitutionally protected, religious beliefs. Therefore his action today was understandable and makes perfect sense.”

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