Gay legal activists are already working on a legal challenge to a new state law in Tennessee, signed into law Monday by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, which prevents local governments from requiring their contractors to abide by local human rights ordinances.
The legislation, entitled the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act,” was aimed at undermining a new Nashville metro area ordinance, signed into law in April. The ordinance prohibited city contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It was passed by the Nashville/Davidson County Metro Council.
Abby Rubenfeld, a Nashville attorney and a former legal director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Tuesday that the new state law will “definitely be challenged—we are working on it right now.”
Governor Haslam, who took office January 15, pitched his support for the law as a pro-business act, saying it relieved businesses of the necessity of navigating differing non-discrimination regulations from city to city. The Family Action Council of Tennessee argued that it does not target LGBT people, and noted that the law does not affect the Nashville Metropolitan Government ordinance prohibiting discrimination by the government against LGBT people.
But no attempt was made prior to passage of the Nashville ordinance to relieve businesses affected by a Nashville ordinance that prohibited contractors from discriminating based on age, race, sex, or disability.
Greg Nevins of Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office said Lambda is not involved in mounting a legal challenge against the Tennessee law, but he called it “a terrible piece of legislation.”
The Human Rights Campaign said Haslam was trying to score “cheap political points” by giving a “green light” to anti-LGBT discrimination. HRC noted that a number of large corporations—including FedEx, AT&T, Comcast, and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce—opposed the new state law.
FedEx issued a statement May 20 saying it “values and promotes the unique contributions, perspectives, and differences” of all its employees and is “committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
State Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from nearby Williamson County, introduced the “Equal Access” bill after the Nashville Metro Council passed a law requiring city contractors to sign an affidavit promising not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Specifically, the bill prohibits local ordinances from having non-discrimination laws broader than that of the state. According to Lambda Legal, Tennessee has no statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in either public or private employment.
Casada told local television NewsChannel 5 that the Nashville ordinance amounted to having the city “dictating moral policy.”
Another anti-gay bill—one that sought to prohibit teachers from providing any information about homosexuality to public school students in grades K through 8—passed the Tennessee Senate 19 to 11 on May 20 but did not get a vote in the House before the General Assembly adjourned May 21. The original bill—dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”—was amended to limit sex education curricula “to natural reproduction science.”
The Tennessee Equality Project said the bill “remains a threat to safe schools for all students in Tennessee,” even though the bill no longer references homosexuality specifically.