Eastern Band Of Cherokee Same-Sex Marriage Ban Stands

Sep 10, 2021

The Eastern Band of Cherokee will not officially recognize same-sex marriages on the Qualla Boundary.  BPR was at Thursday’s tribal council meeting when the vote was taken…

“Still determined. Resolve is still there.”

That’s Tamara Thompson after the vote. She’s the Big Cove resident who brought forward the resolution to update the marriage section of the Cherokee Code, which currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Thompson and the Eastern Band Attorney General’s office argued that language is inherently discriminatory and could impact federal funding, current marriage licenses and other issues.

Here’s Attorney General Mike McConnell, who says $60 million in federal funding the Eastern Band gets could be at risk.

“All of those grants and most of those contracts have boilerplate language about ‘the tribe will not discriminate and violate federal law,” said McConnell.  He continued, “That’s not something I want to risk.”

Principal Chief Richard Sneed put forward a “neutral” solution at the meeting which removed all gendered language from the current marriage code.

“This is really a simple civil rights issue is what it comes down to. As a tribal government we should not be passing laws that contain discriminatory language and our current marriage law, 50-1, does include discriminatory language as it only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman,” said Sneed. This amendment also failed to pass.  

Members of the community spoke out for both sides.  Merritt Youngdeer was one of three Baptist ministers who spoke against, quoting the Isaiah book of the Bible: 

“He said, 'Woe unto those who call good evil and them that put darkness before light...,'” said Youngdeer.  

The ministers mentioned being forced to violate their religious rights and marry same-sex couples as a result of this law. Attorney General Mike McConnell said that the Supreme Court already recognizes this religious protection as precedent from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case

Most tribal council members were silent during the discussion.  One who wasn’t was Chelsea Taylor Saunooke, who lost her re-election bid this month.  She said she recently asked her girlfriend to marry her on their second anniversary.

“She’s my fiancé. I hope we can get married here. If not. Maybe I can wait for the day to come. But thank you, to those who aren’t in support for violating your co-council member's rights,” said Saunooke.

The final vote was 8 votes in favor of killing the resolution, with 3 against and one abstention.  Supporters of same-sex marriage recognition say they will continue fighting the for the legislation.

The resolution to update the marriage code was brought forward twice before being added to the agenda.