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LGBTQ Tennesseans Fight 'Slate of Hate'

Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project
Center: Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project

The state has seen a rash of anti-LGBTQ legislation this year, and some of it's being voted on this week.

It's shaping up as a challenging week for LGBTQ Tennesseans.

Two anti-LGBTQ bills will come before a House committee Wednesday, and another one is up for a vote in the full House Thursday. Some other harmful bills are pending, and the Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBTQ group, has dubbed the rash of legislation the "Slate of Hate." If any of the legislation passes, Tennessee would be the first state to enact an anti-LGBTQ law this year.

House Bill 836, which will be considered by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to deny child placement "when the proposed placement would violate the agency's written religious or moral convictions or policies." This would apply even to agencies that hold state contracts and would mean that they could turn away LGBTQ people, members of different faiths, interfaith couples, single people, and any other prospective parent who somehow offends their religious beliefs. Several other states have passed similar legislation, including, last year, Kansas and Oklahoma.

"It's the kind of bill that's very cleverly done," says Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. Its proponents make the case that people rejected by one agency can go to another -- but pro-equality forces point out that such discrimination is wrong in any case.

And opponents of the bill are also emphasizing that it would give the state's blessing to discrimination not only against LGBTQ people but against many other groups. "Whenever you target our community with a bill, it affects others as well," Sanders tells The Advocate, adding that being anti-LGBTQ should be reason enough to oppose a measure, in any case.

HB 1151, legislation to enhance the state's indecent exposure law, will go before the same committee Wednesday. It seeks to expand the definition of indecent exposure to include incidents occurring in restrooms and locker rooms, and it was originally written to target transgender people.

Since its introduction, the bill has been heavily amended to remove anti-trans language, including references to "gender dysphoria" and "gender confusion," Sanders says. But it could be amended again to reinstate those passages, he notes, so his group is monitoring it closely.

Then Thursday, a "license to discriminate" bill is expected to go before the full House. HB 563 would prevent city governments from taking a company's nondiscrimination policy into consideration when making grants or contracts, Sanders says. So a city wouldn't be allowed to favor companies with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies when seeking contractors to provide municipal services.

The fact that the bill is being pushed to the House floor means it may well pass, he says, although that doesn't mean that similar legislation will succeed in the Senate. All these House bills have companion measures in the Senate, but it's the House bills that are scheduled for action this week.

What to do about such bills? Call your legislator, Sanders says. "We want the phones absolutely buzzing, and that's very important," he says. The Tennessee Equality Project puts out action alerts weekly, and anyone can sign up for those on its website. Those who don't know who their representative or senator is can find that information on the Tennessee General Assembly's site.

Calls against the adoption discrimination bill are the biggest priority at the moment, he says. While it would be great if people would call everyone on the House Judiciary Committee, calls to any number of members are helpful, Sanders adds.

His group is also mobilizing faith leaders to oppose discriminatory legislation. More than 100 clergy members have signed on to a statement opposing all the anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in Tennessee this year. "As leaders of faith communities we oppose these bills in the Tennessee General Assembly. They promote discrimination rather than justice and demean the worth of LGBTQ people in our state. We call on people of good will to join us in speaking out for basic fairness," the statement reads. The signatories are drawn from a variety of faiths and all across the state.

Major businesses are also speaking out against the bills. Executives of AllianceBernstein, a global investment management firm that's moving its headquarters from New York City to Nashville, held a press conference with LGBTQ advocates this month to denounce the slate of legislation. "AB chose to move to Tennessee because we believe it is a welcoming state that is focused on growing jobs, incomes and the tax base, which will improve lives for all Tennesseans," AllianceBernstein chief operating officer Jim Gingrich said at the event event. "We believe strongly in the need for continued investments in education, safety, infrastructure for all. The bills being debated in the current session of the legislature send a clear message to certain constituencies that they are not welcome. Other states have tried to pass similar bills and this has proven to be antigrowth, antijob, and against the interests of the citizens of those states."

Some other anti-LGBTQ bills are stalled. The so-called Natural Marriage Defense Act, which claims that the Supreme Court's 2015 marriage equality ruling doesn't apply to Tennessee, isn't going anywhere right now. A strike against the bill, in addition to its being discriminatory and unconstitutional, is that if it became law, it would result in the denial of billions of dollars in federal funding to state social programs, Sanders says.

But supporters of the bill, versions of which have been introduced in both the House and Senate, may try to revive it now that a different strategy to block marriage equality has failed, Sanders notes. A minister and a Bradley County commissioner had sued the county clerk in 2016 for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, claiming that the Supreme Court decision invalidated all marriage laws in the state, so she did not have authority to license any marriages. A judge dismissed the suit last week.

Another piece of pending anti-LGBTQ legislation represents an alternative to another failed strategy. Tennessee lawmakers have not managed to pass a "bathroom bill" denying trans people access to the public restrooms of their choice, so this year saw the introduction of Senate Bill 1499 and House Bill 1274, which would require the attorney general to defend local education agencies or their employees when they implement anti-transgender bathroom and locker room policies.

When Roy Cooper was attorney general of neighboring North Carolina (he's now governor), he refused to defend the state's infamous anti-trans House Bill 2, which has now been partially repealed. That may have influenced the Tennessee legislators who came up with this idea, but the defeat of the more expansive bills was definitely a factor, Sanders notes. SB 1499 and HB 1274 are stalled for the moment, however.

Freedom for All Americans, which advocates for LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws around the nation, is working with the Tennessee Equality Project to fight the "Slate of Hate."

"A small group of Tennessee lawmakers appears bound and determined to advance an anti-LGBTQ agenda that is out of step with Tennesseans' values," says Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy. "These bills target the marriages, families, and basic welfare of Tennesseans' neighbors, family members, and friends who happen to be LGBTQ. At a moment when voters across the country are overwhelmingly supporting protections for LGBTQ people, Tennessee can't afford the economic consequences of discrimination. We stand with our partners at Tennessee Equality Project to call on Tennessee lawmakers to stop these attacks on LGBTQ people and their families."

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