March 19, 2012
By Scottie Thomaston
Tennessee State Senator Jim Kyle will advance his bill to restore antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people in Tennessee tomorrow. It will go up for a vote in the State & Local Government Committee, where it was introduced last week. The bill is the ninth item on the agenda for tomorrow. Tennessee Equality Project, one of the state’s LGBT organizations, sought and obtained a letter from Nashville’s mayor Karl Dean in support of Senator Kyle’s bill.
It is expected to be a close vote, and passage is far from assured.
In May of last year, Tennessee adopted HB600, the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act.” The bill on its face created a ‘neutral’ application of antidiscrimination laws across the state of Tennessee. The purpose behind it, however, was to remove anti-discrimination protections from localities. It effectively nullified the anti-discrimination ordinance in Nashville and disallowed any other city to pass one in the future.
Andy Sher at Chattanooga Times Free Press specifically noted at the time that it’s an anti-gay bill:
Legislation overturning Metro Nashville’s anti-gay bias ordinance is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration after House members gave final approval to the measure today.
Tennessee’s LGBT organizations pressured the governor and urged a veto. AMERICABlog was out in front on this issue from the beginning, launching a campaign to urge Governor Haslam to veto the bill and to punish the companies who chose to lobby for its passage. As Think Progress wrote discussing it:
When Nashville passed a non-discrimination ordinance earlier this year inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, the city celebrated the fact it would be a more competitive because many businesses have similar policies. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce — which includes leadership from Nissan, FedEx, AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Caterpillar, KPMG, Whirlpool, Embraer, Alcoa, and United HealthCare — conspired with religious right groups to advocate for a bill invalidating Nashville’s ordinance. Proponents called the bill the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act,” but opponents more accurately called it the “Special Access to Discriminate” (SAD) Act.
Chris Sanders from Tennessee Equality Project tells me that the southern state, recently bombarded with several anti-LGBT proposals at the state level, is having a much-needed conversation about advancing equality for LGBT people, “As a result of last year’s HB600 and this bill designed to repeal it, we are having the longest sustained conversation about LGBT job discrimination that has ever occurred in Tennessee.”
Immediately upon passage of the bill, LGBT rights groups brought a challenge to the law to court. They have an interesting argument, namely that Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court decision overturning Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1996, applies to their situation because:
“This law is contrary to core Tennessee values,” said Abby R. Rubenfeld, the suit’s lead attorney. “Tennessee is the volunteer state—we help each other, we don’t single out certain Tennesseans who are deemed unworthy of help. Our legislators abused their power by preventing localities from assisting their own citizens. Rather than considering what is best for our state, they passed a law based on disapproval of gay and transgender people, which the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions do not permit.”
“Fifteen years ago, in fact – in a case quite similar to this one – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, ‘if the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest’,” said Rubenfeld, citing Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that barred localities or the state from passing laws to prohibit discrimination against gay people.
It’s not assured the challenge would be successful since the cases have some differences: Amendment 2 directly mentioned “homosexual… orientation” and this law purports to be neutral. But the principle is the same.
When the bill was introduced in committee last week, Metro Council Member Anthony Davis testified in support of its passage.
Sanders notes that providing antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people in the state will create safer working environments where people can thrive, free of fear of harassment or of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, “We’re grateful to Sen. Kyle for advancing this bill because he is convincingly arguing for local authority in the issue of procurement, but he is also creating a space for communities in Tennessee to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees of firms that contract with local governments. We’ve also been pleased to leadership on this issue from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, the Shelby County Commission, and the Metro Nashville Council.”
Throughout the day tomorrow, updates will be provided by Sanders via Twitter: @TNEquality. We will have more as well as events unfold.