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Tennessee House passes contentious anti-discrimination bill

March 21, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s GOP-dominated House on Thursday approved an anti-discrimination business bill that some critics say is dangerous for LGBTQ people.

According to the bill, cities and state agencies would be banned from taking “discriminatory action” against businesses if they have internal polices in compliance with state law.

However, critics counter that Tennessee law does not have any anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. They argue the bill could allow businesses with employment policies allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people to face no risk from losing out on tax dollars.

The proposal is one of several bills LGBT-advocates have deemed as a “slate of hate” moving inside the Tennessee Capitol. Other bills have targeted the state’s public indecency law to apply to bathrooms and changing rooms — a move many saw as designed to restrict the facilities transgender people can use. Another measure would allow Tennessee adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ parents because of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“If you think that bill is designed to protect people’s civil rights, then I’m the king of Bavaria,” said House Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville. “Let’s get real. It’s ridiculous; it’s not true. We all know that.”

Republican Rep. Jason Zachary, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation protects all businesses regardless of political leanings but conceded the only opposition he faced on the issue was from LGBTQ groups.

“I told them if I was part of that community, I want this,” he said. “If they choose to alter their health care policies, that is tolerated to them and that is up to them. No governmental entity can discriminate against them.”

The bill itself never mentions gender identity or sexual orientation. Instead, it specifically lists health insurance, family leave, minimum wage and other antidiscrimination guidelines as policies that can be used by government agencies to penalize a business.

This means governments could not enforce a tax penalty, deny or revoke a business tax exemption, withhold a grant or contract, or exclude a business from using “property, facilities, speech forums ... charitable fundraising campaigns” based on those policies.

While debating the bill, Zachary agreed his bill would mean a government agency could not discriminate against a business offering employee health benefits to same-sex couples. However, critics have warned that government agencies also would be required to give a grant to organizations that operate services even if they refuse LGBTQ people.

“Whether you’re Christian, Muslim, gay or straight, this is a bill that protects businesses in Tennessee,” Zachary said.

House lawmakers advanced the measure Thursday on a 68-22 vote, with only Democrats voting against. The bill must still clear the Senate before it can head to the governor’s desk for final approval. A similar bill failed to make it that far last year.

“Every oppressive law like that has been defended as an effort to help the people they repress. This is an old playbook. It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing they’re trying to pass that law,” Stewart told reporters after the vote.

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