By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Lawmakers trying to quash subpoenas seeking information that might reveal details about why they voted for a measure that overturned Nashville’s anti-discrimination ordinance have released 2,200 documents, but plaintiffs’ attorneys said they aren’t satisfied.
Counsel for Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Reps. Jim Gotto of Hermitage and Glen Casada of Franklin told Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy that their Republican clients don’t have any more documents to provide.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are looking for communication the lawmakers may have had with lobbyists. The measure was signed into law earlier this year and has been adamantly opposed by several large companies.
The law prohibits local governments from creating anti-discrimination regulations that are stricter than the state’s. It repealed a Nashville city ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city.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 cover only race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit 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.
Plaintiff attorney Abby Rubenfeld told reporters after Monday’s hearing that only about 10 documents are relevant to the case. She said the rest are mostly letters from constituents.
“We’re not trying to get their internal communications,” Rubenfeld said. “We want their communication as state legislators. They don’t have a right to lobby in secret.”
However, attorney Byron Babione, who is representing the Family Action Counsel of Tennessee, a Christian conservative advocacy group, said the First Amendment protects his client and the lawmakers “from other parties using the courts to try to intrude in your private documents and your strategies, with respect to political issues.”
“It’s a bad precedent if … your political opponents, and anybody that opposes you, can get your confidential communications that you have,” said Babione, adding that it’s hard to believe plaintiffs’ attorneys can’t find the information they need in the more than 2,000 documents.
“That’s absurd,” he said. “There are 2,200 documents. In most cases like this, the legislator doesn’t provide any documents.”
During the hearing, McCoy asked if there was enough relevant communication in the documents. Rubenfeld said there was not.
McCoy told both parties to try to reach some sort of agreement on the documents by the end of next month.
Besides the lawmakers, Rubenfeld said she’s seeking documents from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who’s also a defendant in the case. She said all requests to the governor have been repeatedly rejected.
The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office said in an email to The Associated Press on Monday that plaintiffs’ counsel requested a set of interrogatories and made a request for documents last month, but that the state objected to the request because of “various legal deficiencies.”
Haslam told reporters earlier this year that he hasn’t had second thoughts about signing the anti-discrimination measure into law, despite several large companies and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce publicly announcing their opposition to it.
Companies speaking out against the law to overrule the city include Fedex, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast.
Haslam said at the time that he encourages businesses to adopt policies banning discrimination against gay and lesbian employees, but that he doesn’t believe local governments should be able to require those guidelines before companies can contract with them.
“We’re not in favor of discrimination in any form at all,” Haslam said. “We just think that businesses should get to decide for themselves what they have in their policies.”