In May, the Tennessee legislature overturned a Nashville non-discrimination ordinance that prohibited businesses that contract with the state from discriminating against sexual orientation and gender identity. The so-called “Special Access to Discriminate” (SAD) Act prevents any municipality from extending non-discrimination protections to LGBT people because state law does not currently cover sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class. Equality advocates are suing to overturn the law, arguing it was designed to illegally discriminate against the LGBT community rather than protect businesses from “burdensome” regulation, as lawmakers argued.
Documents obtained as part of the law suit now show that so-called “traditional family” activists like the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) and Southern Baptist Convention not only scripted the legislative debate over SAD, but also attempted to cloak their anti-gay bias in economic language, fearing that “moral thoughts on the measure would become public and distract from the economic argument he used to sell the bill.” From emails written by David Fowler, president of FACT and a former state senator:
“Please do NOT pass this on to anyone who you think might in the slightest pass it to anyone else,” Fowler continued later in the email. “We’ve learned that some folks we thought were friends cannot be trusted and we don’t need the Chamber backing off because it starts to appear to be too much of a Christian, right wing, homosexual issue rather than a business/economic issue.”
Fowler wrote the group again on Jan. 29 after meeting with chamber officials.
“I felt it was pretty clear that they did not like the ordinance but didn’t want to come across as homophobes or send the country a signal that Nashville was not a great city for all people — was inclusive,” Fowler wrote. “In my opinion the Chamber is clearly trying to document ‘good reasons’ to oppose the bill that anyone with any common sense, regardless of where they stand on the ethic of homosexual conduct, could see are valid concerns.”
Though many businesses already protected LGBT employees from discrimination, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce bought into the economic argument and joined with religious-right groups to push the SAD Act into law. “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 Chamber said in May. After the legislation passed, however, the business lobby swiftly reversed its position, stating that because the bill “has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness principles, which we support, we are now officially opposing this legislation.”
FACT, meanwhile, has a long history of using religious conviction to discriminate against LGBT people. The group initially opposed Nashville’s non-discrimination protections by alleging that transgender people were child predators who could seize on the employment protections to molest children in public bathrooms. Fowler also protested BlueCross BlueShield’s inclusive policies by complaining that the company was promoting “cultural acceptance of homosexual conduct.”