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Obama may have evolved on same-sex marriage, but most Tennessee Democrats haven't

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In President Obama's newly evolved (or at least, newly public) view of things, same-sex couples should be able to get married — just as soon as the state in which they reside comes around to the same conclusion. As of this writing, eight states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (That includes Washington state and Maryland, where laws granting same-sex marriage rights have been approved but are yet to go into effect.) Meanwhile, 31 states have voted in favor of constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. In 2006, Tennessee became one of the latter, as has every other state where the issue has appeared on a ballot. And there are no signs the Volunteer State will be reversing that decision anytime soon.

While Republicans were gleefully drawing attention to Obama's announcement, which they saw as an attempt to distract from the economy, the state Democratic Party was conspicuously silent. Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese tells the Scene he didn't think it was necessary to put out a statement that would simply say that while some party members hold a different view, the party stands behind the president. It's worth noting, by the way, that Tennessee's Marriage Protection Amendment would not have passed the General Assembly in 2005 without the support of Democrats, who held the gavel in both chambers, a majority in the House and the governorship at the time. Furthermore, the referendum passed in 2006 with 81 percent of the vote.

And while the president was "evolving" on the matter — as he continually put it in the lead-up to his revelation — his fellow Democrats in Tennessee, for the most part, haven't.

"I have supported most every issue in regard to what you would call civil rights for gay citizens we've had," Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle tells the Scene. "Everywhere from adoption to health insurance benefits, to whatever they are. But I part company with the president on this. I've supported civil unions, I've supported this and that, but I'm where I was in 2006."

Only 10 Democratic legislators voted against putting the Marriage Protection Amendment on the ballot. (One Republican abstained.) Thus few Democrats are likely to be reminded of that issue this fall, as they face Republican opponents who share the same view, but Kyle might be unique in the following way: After Republican-led redistricting, the Memphis Democrat has an upcoming primary challenge from fellow incumbent Sen. Beverly Marrero, a left-wing darling who voted against the marriage amendment seven years ago (and who owns an impressive hat collection).

Still, Kyle says he doesn't think it will be a divisive issue for state Democrats. Marrero could not be reached for comment.

Kyle's counterpart in the House, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, shares Kyle's view on same-sex marriage, as well as its political relevance in the state.

"[Obama] indicated it was a state issue, and Tennessee has already taken a position on marriage," Fitzhugh says. "One man, one woman. I think the issue is settled here."

People who have a union together "should have certain rights," he says, but marriage "from the biblical sense" is between one man and one woman. Despite Obama's pronouncement, however, Fitzhugh still believes the economy and jobs will be the primary issues this fall — analysis Obama espoused himself during a recent appearance on The View.

At least one Tennessee Democrat has, like the president, evolved on the issue. Mike Turner, who voted for the same-sex marriage ban in 2005, says he has changed his mind. The House Democratic Caucus chairman says he wouldn't vote the same way again, but stops short of indicating an inclination to challenge the state's current stance. He concedes that representing a portion of blue Davidson County allows him a bit more political flexibility.

"I have changed my opinion on that," Turner tells the Scene. "I would not vote that way again. Who am I — who is the government — to tell them they can't enjoy the same happiness legally as anyone else?"

Regardless, despite the distinct possibility that marriage equality will soon be a part of the national Democratic party platform, that plank would seem to lack a connection point in Tennessee. Puttbrese says the party encourages individual candidates to champion any cause they care about. The executive committee, however, hasn't met yet, he says, and when it does, Obama's evolution might not even come up.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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