TN State Lawmakers Attack LGBT Community

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Unfortunately, this legislative session, the Tennessee Assembly spent too much time launching a cultural war against inclusion, diversity, and equality.

Consider, first, that the legislature approved SB 1556, which attempts to deny counseling services to members of the LGBT community. Under the language of the new law, counselors may turn away patients based on the counselors’ “sincerely held principles.” Those on the other side of the aisle argued that the bill was necessary to protect the religious freedom of counselors. The right to deny services, they argued, was permitted under the exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment. David Fowler, a lobbyist and one of the leading proponents of the bill said: “The bill respects religious liberty and prevents the American Counseling Association from using Tennessee’s laws to promote government-compelled speech, contrary to the First Amendment.” We saw similar legislation in Mississippi this year. Since “principle” means, more or less, “one’s truth”, the new law seems to give counselors the chance to deny service for any reason. This, ladies and gentlemen, potentially puts Tennessee on a very dangerous and slippery slope.

Another important bill to the LGBT community was SB 2387, which was ultimately not approved. This bill would have barred transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities from using the restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Fortunately, the Republican bill sponsor withdrew the bill, thanks to pressure from Democrats, concerns of business groups, and the intervention of many progressive stakeholders. It is important to note that a legal opinion from the Attorney General, which was requested by Democrats, declared that hundreds of millions would be lost in federal funding if the so-called “bathroom bill” passed. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said that the bathroom bill could cost Nashville at least $58 million.

Also, lawmakers on the other side of the aisle submitted a bill to eliminate marriage equality in Tennessee. The bill was HB 1412 and was called by its sponsor the “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.” This bill would have directed Tennessee courts to recognize only marriages defined between one man and one woman. The bill also directed Tennessee courts to ignore the United States Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. The bill failed.

Members of the LGBT community were not the only targets this legislative session. There were several other attempts to undermine efforts at diversity and inclusion. For instance, a bill to discontinue some funding from the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion passed by wide margins.

In addition, the Tennessee Economic Council on Women, one of the major state organizations devoted to making sure talent, from both genders, is recognized in the workplace lost its funding. The organization had been helping Tennessee women in the workplace since 1998.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Assembly approved the so-called Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a law that makes it extremely difficult for local communities to remove divisive Confederate symbols from the public landscape. The new law creates an arduous process, including multiple hearings, for local proposals to make changes or remove these honorifics to Confederate leaders. Final power to approve Confederate sites was taken out of the hands of local governments and transferred largely to now a Nashville state commission.

Finally, let’s not forget the so-called debate over the “Bible bill” which would have made the Bible the “official” book of the state. Democrats largely opposed the bill because it would emphasize one faith tradition over others. For instance, my constituents tell me that they want us to respect the diversity of faith traditions in the state of Tennessee, not just a single view or single religious tradition. This group includes Tennesseans that are Jewish, Buddhist, and also those that do not identify with a religion. In Memphis, alone, there are nearly several thousand Jews. I’m a Christian, but I don’t think we should support a bill that promotes just my single view of faith and religion. That’s not fair to the other faith traditions in our state. The bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor.

The legislature could have tackled issues like expanding healthcare coverage, or infrastructure reform, or criminal justice reform, all issues that would have been broadly beneficial to Tennesseans. But, it didn’t. Instead, too much time was spent this legislative session debating issues that generate unnecessary controversy, create division, or, at best, only appeal to a very tiny minority of Tennesseans.

Pictured: Senator Lee Harris