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June 3, 2011

Tennessee bars all local LGBT equality measures

Nashville, Tenn.--A new law signed on May 23 bars local ordinances that extend non-discrimination protections beyond what is offered by the state, an attack on the capital’s gay equality ordinance.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said that the bill was intended to help businesses by streamlining ordinances across the state without local governments acting as human resource departments.

Gay civil rights advocates, however, believe that the new law is simply an attempt to destroy civil rights protections for LGBT people, who are not currently covered by state antidiscrimination laws.

The ordinance that passed in Nashville and Davidson County in April bars companies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from doing business with the city or county. Nashville is the state’s only city with an LGBT equality law.

The measure arose out of the case of a lesbian soccer coach who left a private university after telling students that she and her partner planned to have a baby. The college rents fields from the city.

While the bill stripping local rights protections was originally supported by the state chamber of commerce, they rescinded their support on May 23, days after the bill passed the legislature but before it was signed by the governor.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the chamber said the bill was “a debate on diversity and inclusiveness--principles which we support--we are now officially opposing this legislation in its present form.” The move came after chamber members received complaints when online bloggers noted that the new law countered their own internal LGBT policies. Among the companies was the global accounting firm KPMG.

“KMPG did not vote to support the chamber’s adoption of a policy to back this bill, nor do we support the legislation, the effect of which runs counter to KPMG’s policies, core values and our long-standing support for diversity in the workplace in all its forms,” the company said in a separate statement. KPMG is headquartered in the Netherlands but has offices in Tennessee.

Civil rights advocates have promised legal action against the new law, possibly as a violation of the Supreme Court’s 1996 Romer v. Evans ruling.

That ruling struck down a Colorado state constitutional amendment, passed four years earlier, which outlawed any gay and lesbian civil rights measures.

But the Colorado amendment specifically stated that governments could not protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. The Tennessee law does not mention gays, although it is widely understood that it is the purpose of the law.

The new law is not the only anti-gay legislation in the state this year. Another bill would outlaw any teaching about sexuality up to eighth grade other than “natural human reproduction science,” according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. It was altered from its original form, in which the words “sexual orientation” were explicitly used.

It passed the state senate on May 20, but action on it in the state house has been delayed until next year.

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