Anti-Gay Tenn. Law Faces Suit

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 14, 2011

When the city of Nashville, Tennessee, adopted an ordinance requiring that contractors working for the city abide by GLBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, state lawmakers responded by passing a law that stripped local governments of the legal ability to extend such protections.

Now that law is under challenge from a suit that claims the measure is rooted in nothing but anti-gay sentiment, reported the Nashville Business Journal on June 14.

The article notes that the suit accuses the law of "embod[ying] 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."

Among the plaintiffs in the suit is Lisa Howe, who was a soccer coach at Belmont College, a private Christian school, until she came out to members of her team. A June 13 article noted that Howe's departure from her job at Belmont was one factor that prompted the ordinance to begin with.

The law's nullifying of the ordinance means that GLBT workers in Nashville are once again vulnerable to being fired, denied jobs or passed over for promotion based not on their job performance but rather their sexual orientation. The new state law, which forbids the creation of protections by local governments that are not already in place at the state level, also leaves persons with disabilities vulnerable, as well as veterans.

Moreover, the provisions of the law also prevent schools from implementing anti-bullying programs. A Nashville high schooler, Shirit Pankowsky, who founded a GSA at Martin Luther King Magnet High School, is also among the suit's plaintiffs.

"This law is contrary to core Tennessee values," declared attorney Abby Rubenfeld, formerly the head of Lambda Legal and now one of the lawyers who represent the plaintiffs. "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," added Rubenfeld. "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."

Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill stripping local governments of autonomy to protect their GLBT citizens on the night of May 23. The signing took place with little fanfare, but resulted in a storm of controversy.

The Human Rights Campaign said in a subsequent statement that the signing was "an apparent attempt to score cheap political points."

"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," HRC head Joe Solmonese said. "In contrast, Governor Haslam has put discrimination ahead of the state's values and even business interests by signing this horrible legislation."

"Earlier [on May 23], the governor's spokesman stated no decision had been made regarding the veto. It wasn't until support for the bill apparently began to dwindle that he hastily signed the bill into law," the HRC release said.

"Major corporations spoke out against the bill and in favor of workplaces that respect and welcome all individuals," added the release. "Since the bill passed late last week, Aloca, FedEx, AT&T, KPMG, UnitedHealth Group, Whirlpool, Comcast and other companies publicly disavowed the bill."

But that disavowal came in the wake of an outcry that the Chamber of Commerce had initially supported the legislation. The New Jersey-based Garden State Equality announced in a May 23 release that it had reversed a decision to honor three corporations that serve on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board--AT&T, KPMG, and Pfizer. The release also noted that an early opponent of the bill was Alcoa, which was ahead of the pack in lobbying for Haslam to veto the legislation.

A similar bill was proposed in Montana after one city in that state, Missoula, enacted GLBT-inclusive protections. The bill failed to gain traction, however.

Colorado voters approved still another similar measure in 1992. The United States Supreme Court struck down that ballot initiative in 1996, finding that it violated the Constitutional rights of GLBTs.

The Tennessee State Senate recently passed another anti-gay measure that would strengthen the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" rule barring mention of GLBTs in schools. Republican State Sen. Stacey Campfield champions the bill. The so-called "Don't Say Gay" law would bar any reference to sexual minorities in public schools until students reach the ninth grade.

Opponents to the bill worry that students, who hear anti-gay epithets and erroneous information concerning gays long before they reach the ninth grade, will be impacted by such a ban on speech in the classroom, especially GLBT youth.

But Campfield has justified the bill, saying that students should not hear about gays at school in elementary school because "homosexuals don't naturally reproduce," the Associated Press reported on May 20.

The bill's text states that classroom discussions touching upon sexuality will be "limited exclusively to age-appropriate natural human reproduction science." The bill does not seem to make any provision for discussions of same-sex families, and advocates for gay youth worry about the effect on the emotional health of young GLBTs in an environment where homophobic messages are prevented by law from being countered.

The measure passed the Tennessee State Senate on May 20 with a vote of 19-11. The Chamber's approval of the controversial measure is a long-sought victory for Campfield, who proposed the measure for six years running during his tenure as a state representative. However, the bill is not currently slated to be taken up by the state House of Representatives, and may well languish.

Nashville was also in gay and mainstream news recently following an appearance at the Ryman Auditorium in that city by "30 Rock" costar and comedian Tracy Morgan, who, an offended fan said in a Facebook posting, told a cheering crowd that bullied gay youths should stop "whining" and "beat some ass" instead. Morgan also said that if his own son came out as gay, he would stab him to death.

Morgan later apologized for those remarks and said he was especially sorry about having made light of the torments that bullied gay youths suffer.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.