NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A group of local elected officials, individuals and LGBT rights organizations filed a lawsuit today in Davidson County Chancery Court, challenging the state’s recent passage of an anti-gay law.
House Bill 600 prohibits local municipalities and counties, including local school districts, from enacting local laws or school policies that protect LGBT people against discrimination.
The bill was passed earlier this year, just weeks after Nashville added sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing local anti-discrimination law. The new law also prohibits localities from protecting any other group that is not already protected under state law, which would include veterans and people with disabilities, among others.
“HB600 embodies 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,” the lawsuit says.
“This law is contrary to core Tennessee values,” said Abby R. Rubenfeld, the suit’s lead attorney. “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. 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.”
“Fifteen years ago, in fact — in a case quite similar to this one — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, ‘if the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest’,” said Rubenfeld, citing Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that barred localities or the state from passing laws to prohibit discrimination against gay people.
The suit’s plaintiffs, represented by Nashville attorney Rubenfeld, the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, include:
• Lisa Howe, the extremely successful Belmont University soccer coach who made a “mutual decision” to leave her coaching position unexpectedly and despite a highly successful career, immediately after sharing with her team that she and her same-sex partner were having a baby.
• Metro Councilmembers Erik Cole, Erica Gilmore, and Mike Jameson, representing District 7, District 19, and District 6, respectively. Councilmembers Gilmore and Jameson were co-sponsors of BL2011-838, the Metro ordinance which extended existing anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender employees of Metro government contractors.
• Shirit Pankowsky, a rising senior at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School (MLK) and founder and president of MLK’s Gay/Straight Alliance. By stripping Metro’s ability to protect its citizens from discrimination, HB600 also strips protections from Metro Nashville Public Schools’ LGBT students who face discrimination.
• Dr. Marisa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and longtime advocate for gay and transgender equality at the federal, state and local level.
• Wesley Roberts, a teacher at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School and a co-sponsor of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance.
• The Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and sustaining the equality of gay and transgender Tennesseans.
• The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, a statewide organization which advocates for transgender-related legislation at the federal, state and local levels.
“I want my daughter to grow up in a state that treats everyone equally,” Howe said. “This lawsuit is necessary because the legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the majority of the legislature didn’t read the bill carefully and think through its consequences. But that’s why we have the Constitution and the courts to interpret it—so that the rights of everyone can be protected.”
“The state legislation was disguised as an effort to ensure consistent business regulations across Tennessee counties. But that was a Trojan horse pretext for getting this passed. Every county has unique zoning regulations, unique employment regulations, and so forth. Why is it only now, and only on the issue of discrimination, that we suddenly need uniformity? If every county now needs to be identical, should we abolish city councils across the state?” said Metro Councilmember and suit plaintiff Mike Jameson.
No individual businesses went on record in support of HB600, and some of Tennessee’s largest employers, including Nissan, Alcoa, FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast, opposed the bill. In addition, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce issued a public statement in opposition to the bill on the day it was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.
“Under the very thin guise of protecting businesses and commerce, Tennessee passed a law specifically intended to encourage discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the community,” said Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This law is part of a larger, national strategy to attack cities and counties that attempt to protect their citizens from discrimination based on characteristics that bear no relationship to job performance, talent, or one’s ability to contribute to society.”
Plaintiffs’ claims are based on the equal protection guarantees of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. The lawsuit, which will proceed in state court, seeks injunctive relief to stop the enforcement of HB600 and an order from the Court declaring the law unconstitutional.