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Cherokee to consider same-sex marriage law in September

Yellowhill community member Mary Crowe speaks with LGBTQ advocates outside the Cherokee Council House July 8, following Tribal Council’s second refusal to consider an ordinance legalizing same-sex marriage. Holly Kays photo Yellowhill community member Mary Crowe speaks with LGBTQ advocates outside the Cherokee Council House July 8, following Tribal Council’s second refusal to consider an ordinance legalizing same-sex marriage. Holly Kays photo

After twice refusing  to grant the legislation a perfunctory first reading, during its Aug. 5 meeting the Cherokee Tribal Council allowed an ordinance seeking to legalize same-sex marriage on the Qualla Boundary to be read into the record for consideration at its Sept. 9 meeting. 

Currently, Cherokee law explicitly prohibits  such unions from being recognized. 

The ordinance, submitted by tribal member Tamara Thompson, was first placed on the agenda in June. Under tribal law, proposed ordinances are entered into the record and then must sit for 25 days after introduction before Council can take action. Typically, the Tribal Council will vote to deem all new ordinances read and tabled in order to save the extensive time it would take to read each one out loud. The law does not include any provision for declining to read an ordinance into the record, or for declaring it dead on the floor prior to the first reading. 

However, in June the Council voted unanimously to deem all new ordinances read and tabled except for the one regarding same-sex marriage. Chairman Adam Wachacha told the body that because nobody had moved to deem the ordinance read and tabled, it would die on the floor. 

Thompson submitted the ordinance again in July, and the same thing happened — though this time the vote was accompanied by extensive discussion in the chambers that included strong statements from two Council members in favor of not only allowing the ordinance an up-or-down vote, but enacting it as law. 

One of those members was Wolfetown Representative Chelsea Saunooke, who in an emotional speech told the audience that she’d known since second grade that she was bisexual and that one of her children had recently come out to her. During the Aug. 5 meeting, Saunooke said she’d received incredible support in the month since. 

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“It wasn’t something I planned to do, but it’s opened the doors for a lot of people, even on the parts of behavioral health and generational trauma,” she said. “I will keep everyone in my prayers that has battled some of the same things or had those struggles.”

Ultimately, five members voted to deem it read and tabled, but seven voted not to. 

Only two new ordinances appeared on the Aug. 5 agenda. Council voted to deem one of them read and tabled, as is typical, and again took no vote on the same-sex marriage ordinance. However, instead of interpreting this to declare the ordinance dead, as occurred in previous meetings, this time Wachacha directed the clerk to read the entire ordinance into the record. 

“Council, item one is now placed on the 25-day reading period,” he said after the reading. “It will be tabled. It will come back up for consideration by this Council on the second week of September.”

Council will have to act on the ordinance next month in order for it to become law. Because it’s an election year, any pending legislation not dealt with by the time new members are sworn in Oct. 4 will be considered dead, though similar legislation could certainly be introduced in the next term. Cherokee does not use staggered terms for its legislature, so all 12 members face re-election this September. 

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