Supporters of a new Tennessee law prohibiting local governments from creating anti-discrimination laws stricter than the state’s say it will shield businesses from unwanted regulations. Opponents contend it’s blatantly discriminatory.
The measure, known as the Special Access to Discrimination Act and signed May 23 by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, voids a Nashville ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city.
Meanwhile, the legislature adjourned May 24 without final action on another controversial measure, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
That measure would amend state code to prohibit public middle and elementary school educators from providing any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. Discussions of human sexuality, the bill states, are more appropriate for the home.
The senate, voting 19-11, passed a weakened version of the schools measure May 20.
However, the general assembly retired after passing a budget May 24, leaving its version of the bill still on the table.
The bills “remain a threat to safe schools in Tennessee,” said Jonathan Cole, chair of the Tennessee Equality Project. Gay rights advocates said the legislation would interfere not only with what teachers say in the classroom but also impact how school officials deal with the bullying of a gay student.
The organization, based in Nashville, has launched the Gayathon campaign, encouraging people to say “gay” for equality, especially to say “gay” to Tennessee Sen. Stacey Campfield, the bill’s sponsor for the past six years.
Under Tennessee law it is illegal to discriminate against a person because of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.
The Nashville ordinance prohibited companies that discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender identity from receiving city contracts. It didn’t apply to local governments’ hiring policies for their own workers.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor expressed concern about the state telling local governments what to do, “but he also had concerns about local governments telling businesses what to do, especially the potential burden on small businesses.”
Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group considered the “controversial nature of the bill” but decided to support it because they believe it will protect private employers from “patchwork regulations.”
“Our view was there are states like California, Michigan and others that have really gone off on the deep end and they have all these patchwork regulations from different cities,” Brown said. “I think the principle of the bill is to protect private employers from … regulations that they don’t want to operate under.”
David Fowler, president of Family Action of Tennessee, a Christian conservative advocacy group, agreed.
“At a time when many families are struggling to find employment, the Legislature and the governor have done their part to help them by creating a better climate for job growth by preventing employers from being subjected to more and possibly inconsistent government regulation,” he said.
However, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese and a number of businesses – including FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast – oppose the measure because they view it as discriminatory.
He noted the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce at one time favored the measure, then changed its stance.
“Discrimination should have no place in the Volunteer State and the chamber’s opposition to this law sent a strong signal that corporations are on the leading edge of positive change,” Solmonese said. “In contrast, Gov. Haslam has put discrimination ahead of the state’s values and even business interests by signing this horrible legislation.”
The HRC head said Haslam was trying to “score cheap political points.”
An amendment by Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville to exclude Davidson County failed.
“This general assembly had talked so much about getting government out of the lives of individuals,” she said. “And with this particular incident I think we just got right smack in the lives of individuals and their private lives.”