Last month, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill de facto voiding a gay-inclusive Nashville-Davidson County metropolitan government nondiscrimination ordinance by making it illegal for local jurisdictions to exceed state level protections — sexual orientation is not covered by state statute. Now, a group of locally elected officials, individuals and LGBT rights organizations have launched a legal complaint saying that the bill was motivated by anti-gay animus.
The legislation, House Bill 600, was billed by the Republican-controlled Legislature as a means of ensuring uniformity in business practices and, they said, was not in direct response to any one piece of local policy.
The lawsuit points out that the new ordinance would go beyond preventing sexual orientation-inclusive policies and would also block localities from protecting groups such as vulnerable veterans and people with disabilities.
According to the complaint filed today: “HB600 embodies an animus toward gay and transgender people so strong that the Tennessee legislature was willing to repeal policies protecting students against bullying and harassment and to make other groups suffer as well, merely to prevent gay and transgender citizens from obtaining needed protections.”
“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.
No individual businesses went on record in support of HB600, and some of Tennessee’s largest employers, including Nissan, Alcoa, FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast, opposed the bill. In addition, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce issued a public statement in opposition to the bill on the day it was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.
“Under the very thin guise of protecting businesses and commerce, Tennessee passed a law specifically intended to encourage discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the community,” said Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This law is part of a larger, national strategy to attack cities and counties that attempt to protect their citizens from discrimination based on characteristics that bear no relationship to job performance, talent, or one’s ability to contribute to society.”
Plaintiffs’ claims are based on the equal protection guarantees of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. The lawsuit, which will proceed in state court, seeks injunctive relief to stop the enforcement of HB600 and an order from the Court declaring the law unconstitutional.
The suit’s plaintiffs, represented by Nashville attorney Ruenfeld, law firm Morrison & Foerster, and the National center for Lesbian Rights, include Lisa Howe who had enjoyed her job as a successful Belmont University soccer coach but was forced into a “mutual decision” to leave that job shortly after revealing that she and her same-sex partner were having a baby.
She is quoted in the press release as saying: “I want my daughter to grow up in a state that treats everyone equally. This lawsuit is necessary because the legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the majority of the legislature didn’t read the bill carefully and think through its consequences. But that’s why we have the Constitution and the courts to interpret it—so that the rights of everyone can be protected.”
For a full list of plaintiffs in the case and to read the complaint, please click here.