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Suit Challenges Tenn.’s Anti-Discrimination Limits


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee cities and counties that want to make it tougher to discriminate against gays and lesbians face a stumbling block under a new state law, and now some Nashville city councilmembers and others are suing to challenge that law.

The new law, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May, law prohibits local governments from creating anti-discrimination regulations that are stricter than the state’s. It repealed a Nashville city ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city. Nashville’s ordinance was broader than the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which only cover race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court include three Nashville councilmembers who supported the ordinance and Lisa Howe, a former Belmont University soccer coach whose departure from the private Christian university led to the city’s ordinance that passed in April. Players at Belmont said Howe was forced to leave because she came out to them with the news that her partner was having a baby.

“I have a daughter now, and I want to make sure she grows up in a state where all the citizens are treated equally,” Howe said at a news conference at the courthouse on Monday afternoon.

Abby Rubenfeld, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said in a news conference that the law violates rights to equal protections under the law for gay and transgender Tennesseans. Furthermore, she said the law also voids a Nashville school policy that protects gay and transgender students from harassment in schools. Other plaintiffs include a Nashville high school student and a teacher who participate in the school-based Gay/Straight Alliance and two statewide gay and transgender rights organizations.

“In their haste to enact a law that targeted the lesbian and gay community, they also invalidated a Metro school board policy that provided protections for lesbian, gay and transgender students who are bullied,” Rubenfeld said.

Some companies have opposed the law including Fedex, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast. Franklin-based Nissan Americas issued a statement that the automaker shares “public concerns about this bill’s impact on diversity and inclusiveness.”

Nashville city councilmember Erica Gilmore, who is a plaintiff, said businesses should make hiring decisions based on merit and performance and nothing else. “Non-discrimination is a good family value, it’s good for business and it’s also good for Nashville,” Gilmore said.

Haslam spokesman, Dave Smith, told The Associated Press on Monday that it was inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.

State Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin who sponsored the legislation, said it was vetted by the state attorney general and he’s not concerned about the legal challenge succeeding. He noted that the bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly easily and he denied the plaintiffs’ claims that the law was discriminatory.

“It keeps local governments from being heavy-handed and dictating to local business what they can and can’t do,” Casada said.

Rubenfeld said no hearing on the lawsuit has been set yet as she expects they will need time for evidence discovery before they plan to ask for an injunction against the law.

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