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Tenn. Anti-Gay Bill Signed Into Law

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 24, 2011

The governor of Tennessee put an end to speculation as to how he would handle a bill that proposed stripping the right of local governments to provide GLBT anti-discrimination protections when, on the night of May 23, he signed the bill into law.

Gov. Bill Haslam was required to make his decision by June 1. His office had offered little indication as to what the governor intended to do with the bill before he signed it, sparking immediate denunciations from GLBT equality organizations.

The state's Chamber of Commerce had indicated support for the bill early on, and national companies involved with the Chamber came under pressure from equality groups in the wake of a statement from the business organization.

"Our position is now, and has historically been, that employment standards from the government should be consistent across the state and not create an additional burden on companies that are endeavoring to be competitive and provide jobs to all Tennesseans based on their individual qualifications and merit," the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce stated.

"On the Chamber's board are representatives from a handful of major national corporations, including Nissan, FedEx, AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), Caterpillar, KPMG, Whirlpool, Embraer, Alcoa and United HealthCare," a May 23 Huffington Post article noted. "Many of those companies have strong diversity policies, including protections and benefits for gays and lesbians."

The Chamber of Commerce reversed its support for the bill in the face of pressure from GLBT equality groups. The Human Rights Campaign suggested that it was this loss of support from the commercial sector that prompted the governor's signing of the bill, which took place with little fanfare.

"Since there are no state protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, the Governor's signature of this bill becomes a green light for anti-LGBT discrimination across the state," a May 23 release from the HRC said.

The HRC said that the signing was "an apparent attempt to score cheap political points," and accused Haslam of "ignor[ing] the business community" by signing the bill into law.

"Discrimination should have no place in the Volunteer State and the Chamber's opposition to this law sent a strong signal that corporations are on the leading edge of positive change," HRC head Joe Solmonese said. "In contrast, Governor Haslam has put discrimination ahead of the state's values and even business interests by signing this horrible legislation."

"Earlier [on May 23], the governor's spokesman stated no decision had been made regarding the veto. It wasn't until support for the bill apparently began to dwindle that he hastily signed the bill into law," the HRC release said.

"Major corporations spoke out against the bill and in favor of workplaces that respect and welcome all individuals," added the release. "Since the bill passed late last week, Aloca, FedEx, AT&T, KPMG, UnitedHealth Group, Whirlpool, Comcast and other companies publicly disavowed the bill."

But that disavowal came in the wake of an outcry that the Chamber of Commerce had initially supported the legislation. The New Jersey-based Garden State Equality announced in a May 23 release that it had reversed a decision to honor three corporations that serve on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board--AT&T, KPMG, and Pfizer. The release also noted that an early opponent of the bill was Alcoa, which was ahead of the pack in lobbying for Haslam to veto the legislation.

"Garden State Equality finds the Tennessee bill to be an unconscionable act of hatred," the release stated. "First, it would nullify county and municipal laws in Tennessee that protect the LGBT community from discrimination, including a Nashville law enacted last month. Secondly, it would bar all counties and municipalities in Tennessee from enacting future laws protecting the LGBT community from discrimination. And thirdly, the bill is a direct assault on transgender people in Tennessee.

"The bill redefines 'sex' in the Tennessee code to include only the gender designated on a birth certificate," clarified the release. "But Tennessee does not allow a change of gender designation on birth certificates for transgender people."

The New Jersey equality group's move was hailed by a similar organization based in Tennessee, the Tennessee Equality Project.

"We thank Garden State Equality for standing by us in Tennessee and showing true national leadership," Nashville Committee Chair Chris Sanders, according to the Garden State Equality release. "We hope organizations across America will follow Garden State Equality's lead with regard to companies on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry."

Next: "Equality is an Everyday Value"


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