Former Belmont University soccer coach Lisa Howe, a handful of Metro Council members and local gay and lesbian rights groups are working together to sue the state. The lawsuit, filed today, challenges the recently-passed state measure overruling Metro Nashville’s anti-discrimination policy.
Days after the Metro Council approved an ordinance barring Metro contractors from discriminating against gay employees, the state passed the new measure, bans cities from passing anti-discrimination rules more stringent than in state law. The bill’s sponsors said it was to protect business from a confusing mass of different discrimination laws from different local governments.
Attorney Abby Rubenfeld claims that wasn’t the real reason.
“It’s an effort to stop localities from being able to offer protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s the purpose, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with business.”
The bill’s original Senate sponsor, Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, says the controversy over Metro’s protection of gay workers shows differing values across the state.
“You’re looking at the difference between a rural community and the way they think, versus the way that a community like Davidson County thinks.”
Although Ketron backed off sponsorship of the bill, he voted for it.
The suit was assigned to the Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy. Rubenfeld says she won’t ask the court to keep the law from taking effect July first.
The case is officially called (“styled”):
Lisa Howe, Erik Cole, Erica Gilmore, Mike Jameson, Shirit Pankowsky, Marisa Richmond, Wesley Roberts, the Tennessee Equality Project, and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition,
Bill Haslam, as Governor of the State of Tennessee, in his official capacity,
Rubenfeld says the new state law, saying local governments can’t protect classes of persons not already protected in state law, has unintended consequences.
“The purpose and the intent was to hurt the gay and lesbian, transgender community. But the effect is to hurt lots of other Tennesseans. For example, any local ordinances around the state that prohibit discrimination based on disability are void. Because disability’s not included in the state law.”
Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, says that he was carrying 155 bills during the 2011 session, and foresaw that the measure would be hard to steer through committees.
“It was going to create a lot of controversy. There were a lot of persons who were opposed to it, and overriding what Metro Council had already done.”
The law is Public Chapter 278, titled the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act” on the theory that business shouldn’t have to meet differing standards in different locations across the state. The title is an intentional echo of the “Interstate Commerce” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which keeps states from barring barriers to out-of-state companies.
Rubenfeld says the title is wrong.
“It has nothing to do with intrastate commerce and basically is an attempt to prevent transgender Tennesseans from having any protection under the law.”
Formerly HB 600 Casada/SB 632 Beavers, the measure was originally an attempt for the state to take more control of city law-making – the original “intrastate commerce” document would have kept Memphis from setting a minimum wage for city contractors. Shelby County lawmakers balked at that, leaving the sponsor, Rep. Glen Casada, to whittle the measure down to an anti-discriminatory rule.
The lead plaintiff on the bill is Lisa Howe, formerly a soccer coach and Belmont University, who attended the announcement of the suit’s filing with her seven-week old baby and her female partner.
Howe is a key player in the entire process, Rubenfeld says.
“Her sudden departure from Belmont University last fall led to the Metro ordinance, that was adopted that added to our existing contractor ordinance here in Metro, sexual orientation and gender identity as categories that Metro contractors cannot discriminate on.”
The initial filing in the suit, a 33-page complaint, lists meetings of legislators with representatives of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, headed by former state Senator David Fowler. The complain alleges that the entire reason for the law was an “animus” against gay people.
Rubenfeld says that allegation will be the thrust of the lawsuit.
“The United State Supreme Court has made pretty clear that a law is invalid if it’s based on an animus to a particular group, and that’s what this law is all about. They can try to paint it however they want, but you know what it’s based on, I know it’s based on, Governor Haslam knows what it’s based on.
“This law is contrary to everything we believe in, in this state. It’s the government over-reaching, it’s targeting a vulnerable minority, it’s unnecessary, it’s mean- spirited, it’s based on animus, and it’s unconstitutional.”