Tennessee's 19-Year Step Back



Tennessee’s new Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce bill, one of the most far-reaching pieces of antigay legislation passed in the 21st century, has left the few LGBT people who are even aware of it utterly confused — and that’s exactly how it was intended.

The new law, signed by Republican governor Bill Haslam on Monday, immediately reversed a new Nashville ordinance that required that businesses the city contracts with function as equal opportunity employers who don’t discriminate against LGBT people. But the state law went even further than voiding that ordinance — it made it impossible for Tennessee cities and counties to enact any antidiscrimination ordinances in the future. Since Tennessee offers no protections for LGBT people and the Republican-controlled legislature makes it highly unlikely that such protections would pass statewide, Tennessee’s gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens can be drummed out of work and kicked out of their apartments with little to no recourse — something that was a possibility before, but now a situation that is unlikely to change for years to come.

While none of Tennessee’s larger cities had ordinances covering discrimination against LGBT people in housing or employment, Nashville did pass an ordinance in 2009 that protected its city employees from being fired for being gay or transgender. The city also passed the contracting bill — which came after Belmont University, which utilizes city property, fired a soccer coach last year for mentioning her partner. Nashville, the state’s capital and second most populous city (after Memphis), demonstrated that it was moving in the direction of equality and would likely pass ordinances that banned all LGBT housing and workplace discrimination. Tennessee’s legislature, now heavily Republican, likely saw that coming and took action.

Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Glen Casada crafted the equal access bill as supposedly business-friendly legislation and described it thus: “This pro-business and pro-taxpayer legislation provides that no local government can impose on any business or person, other than a local government’s own employees, any personnel practice, definition or provision relating to discrimination or discriminatory practices that deviates from the requirements of state law. It also makes null and void any nonconforming requirements imposed prior to the legislation’s effective date. The legislation does not affect anti-discrimination policies that businesses voluntarily adopt for the operation of their business.”

The wording of the actual legislation takes away the ability of any Tennessee municipality to impose discrimination restrictions on any private business or employer, in effect taking away and preventing protections for Tennessee gays in not just employment but housing, public accommodations, and services (though cities or counties can still protect their own government employees from being fired for their orientation or gender identity, as Nashville did in 2009).

Tennessee’s Chamber of Commerce actually supported the bill when it was being debated in the legislature this spring. The group, which ostensibly furthers business interests in the state, argued that it would make discrimination law uniform so that the list of protected groups and characteristics was the same throughout Tennessee. That’s outrageous, says Tennessee Equality Project board chair Jonathan Cole.

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