Tennessee Advances Anti-LGBTQ 'License to Discriminate' Bill

Jason Zachary

Tennessee legislators have advanced what proponents are calling an antidiscrimination bill that in reality could undermine antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

The state’s House of Representatives Thursday approved House Bill 563, which would prevent state or local governments from taking a company’s internal policies into consideration when making contracts or grants, or changing tax treatment, Nashville newspaper The Tennessean reports. It means that these governments could not, for instance, require that companies they do business with have LGBTQ-inclusive antidiscrimination policies — or offer health insurance or family leave or any number of other policies or benefits.

The Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBTQ rights organization, opposes the bill and calls it a “Business License to Discriminate” measure. “This bill ties the hands of local governments in serving the needs of their residents and in using their tax dollars to attract the best jobs to their communities,” said a statement issued by the group.

HB 563’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Jason Zachary, contended it would actually help LGBTQ people. “If I am a part of that community, I want this legislation in place,” he said, according to The Tennessean. “It says no government entity, local or state, can discriminate against a business they own. If they choose to have whatever within their antidiscrimination policy, if they choose to have minimum wage, choose to have a health care policy tailored to them, no government entity can discriminate.”

But when a Democratic representative, Bob Freeman, said it appears that Zachary is seeking “to further the protections for the LGBTQ community,” Zachary “quickly corrected” him, the paper reports.

“You need to be careful about putting words in the sponsor’s mouth when those words are not said,” Zachary responded.

Another Democrat, Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, scoffed at the idea that HB 563 was about advancing civil rights. “If you think that bill is designed to protect people’s civil rights, then I’m the king of Bavaria,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “Let’s get real. It’s ridiculous; it’s not true. We all know that.”

A companion bill in the Senate has yet to receive a committee hearing, so whether the measure will become law is far from certain. Similar legislation failed last year.

HB 563 is part of what Tennessee LGBTQ advocates are calling the “Slate of Hate,” a rash of homophobic and transphobic legislation. The House Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved HB 836, which 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. The bill now goes to the House Calendar and Rules Committee for scheduling on the House floor.

The House Judiciary Committee ran out of time Wednesday, however, to consider a bill expanding the state’s indecent exposure law. It originally targeted transgender people, but it has been amended to remove explicitly anti-trans language. The Senate versions of this and the adoption bill are scheduled for hearings Tuesday in that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

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