A Tennessee state house panel voted today to advance a business anti-discrimination bill that advocacy groups fear would further an anti-LGBT agenda in the state.
HB 563 cleared the state’s House Commerce Committee 11-5 and seeks to stop state and local governments from taking “discriminatory action against a business based on the policies of the business” in areas including health insurance, family leave policies, or anti-discrimination policies.
During the hearing, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Zachary, called his proposal a proactive measure to help Tennessee keep its status as “one of the most business friendly environments in the nation.”
“Decades come, decades go, parties change,” he said. “There’s always a chance governments will change their trajectory.”
He said the meaning of the bill was clear. “I’m not smart enough to bring a crafty bill that has an intent other than what I’ve expressed.” He affirmed he introduced the bill simply to stop state and local governments from discriminating against businesses based on the internal policies of those businesses.
Zachary said he felt his bill would help a Democrat starting a business in a Republican area, or a Democrat starting a business in a Republican area.
The bill has the wind in its favor. Republicans hold overwhelming advantages in both houses, with a 73-26 majority in the House of Representatives and 28-5 majority in the State Senate.
CNN reached out to HB 563 sponsor Rep. Jason Zachary and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate, for further comment.
“Slate of hate”
Liz Welch, an advocacy strategist for the ACLU, told CNN she has “been watching bills like HB 563 in Tennessee for the past years,” adding that the “danger is it can specifically discriminate against LGBT people when it is implemented.”
The bill has been flagged by the Tennessee Equality Project and the Human Rights Campaign as part of a “Slate of Hate” that would discriminate against LGBT people in Tennessee. The groups have identified six house bills, with six senate companion measures.
Lawmakers have also filed a series of other measures that, Welch says, together represent a systematic effort to deny rights. Also on the docket is the Natural Marriage Defense Act, which has been introduced each year since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision allowing gay marriage. Tennessee’s bill would seek to make that decision “unauthoritative, void, and of no effect.”
Another bill, HB 1151, would make it illegal for transgender individuals to engage in “indecent exposure” while using a bathroom, locker room, or public shower.
Still another, HB 1274, would require the state’s attorney general to defend legal policies in K-12 schools to bar transgender students from using the appropriate bathrooms.
Welch called the bills a “whole handbasket of bad,” noting, “This truly is a slate of anti-LGBT bills that can also affect people of faith, particularly minority faiths.” She said the bills were moving quickly, with more committee hearings scheduled for this week.
Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, told CNN that 50 clergy members residing in Tennessee had signed a statement objecting to the slate of bills. Welch compared Tennessee’s locker room bill to North Carolina’s HB 2, which drew national attention in 2016, and limited public restroom use to people of the corresponding biological sex.
Sanders said Tennessee’s bill “goes beyond North Carolina” because of the criminal charges it can carry. “If the viewer doesn’t like the person they’re seeing, they can call the police and there could be an arrest.”