In Tennessee this legislative session, a very controversial bill has reared its head. Dubbed “Turn the Gays Away,” Senate Bill 2566 “permits persons and religious or denominational organizations, based on sincere religious belief, to refuse to provide services or goods in furtherance of a civil union, domestic partnership, or marriage not recognized by the Tennessee Constitution.”
What that means is that if an insurance company doesn’t believe in gay rights, they can refuse to cover you. If a restaurant doesn’t want to serve your gay family, they can refuse you service. If the child of a gay family wants to join the local Boys and Girls club, they can show you the door.
All without legal recourse.
The bill has already seen its fair share of scandal, and it was only filed two weeks ago. The bill’s original sponsor was Brian Kelsey of Memphis/Germantown. But after a hefty amount of criticism from his constituents, he decided it was best to hand it off to someone who wouldn’t see such a backlash. He found that person in Mike Bell of Riceville (representing Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, and Polk Counties).
As you can imagine, the LGBT community in Tennessee is outraged. Chris Sanders, Executive Director of Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) is the leading force lobbying against this bill. The organization has been working to make everyone aware of the problem, asking them to call the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Mike Bell of Riceville, TN and have him withdraw the bill.
"TEP committees throughout the state have worked hard fighting the Turn the Gays Away bill. The Shelby County Committee's media work was a substantial factor in Sen. Kelsey dropping sponsorship of the bill and driving the remaining sponsors to propose amendments to limit its scope. It will take a sustained effort to defeat it, so we need everyone to focus on executing a solid strategy,” Sanders said in a statement exclusive to Out & About Nashville.
Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC) also noted in a release, "In his recent State of the State Address, Gov. Haslam noted that millions of Tennessee tax dollars were wasted fighting unnecessary legal actions to defend unconstitutional laws. We agree with him and believe this bill, if passed, would set up Tennessee taxpayers for another costly, losing, battle."
The bill’s sponsor, Mike Bell, told the Tennessean that he thinks it is wrong to force someone to violate their moral conscience and that we should protect the conscience and religious freedoms of businesses.
"This bill is not about religious freedom-it's a license to discriminate, plain and simple," Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of ACLU-Tennessee, said in a prepared statement. "We have the absolute right to decide for ourselves whether, when, to whom, and how to pray. But religious freedom doesn't give us the right to discriminate against other people. Even though this bill is clearly written to target LGBT couples, it is so vague and overbroad that it may cause harm to men and women regardless of their sexual orientation."
The bill is not original to Tennessee, however. The Kansas legislature is working on something similar to this bill, but it has gotten mired down in the same problems that this troublesome bill has. The Senate President in Kansas has refused to let it go any further, because their current version would also allow public employees (police, firemen, teachers) to refuse their services. But that isn't stopping Kansas. Just this morning, Senate leaders announced they would alter the language in the bill.
The bill in Tennessee has brought about the same questions because the terminology they use is somewhat vague, leaving a lot of questions that this bill does not answer.
A Facebook group, entitled Stop TN Senate Bill 2566 "Turn Away The Gays" Bill, has already gathered nearly 3,000 likes since the bill was announced.
East Tennessee activist and host of The Lavender Table, Gary Elgin, urges the LGBT community and its allies to be "vocal consumers." "Often times, we (the LGBT community) can be very passive in our purchasing," Elgin said in a prepared statement. "Demonstrating the power of the 'Lavender Dollar', being a vocal consumer, letting business owners know what your convictions are, when it comes to your purchasing. This will be key to showing the business community and legislators, how counter-productive this kind of legislation is to an economy the deserves to grow, not shrink."
What You Can Do
We urge you to take the actions you feel necessary to prevent this bill from succeeding. Tomorrow (Tuesday, February 18) TEP asks that those concerned about the bill wear red and attend the Senate Judiciary Committee where the Turn the Gays Away bill will be heard. More details can be found here.
Can't make it to Legislative Plaza tomorrow? Feel free to call Mike Bell and ask that he withdraw his support of Senate Bill 2566. His office number is 615-741-1446. You can even email his office.
Beyond the bill, ask your favorite businesses, the places you spend your money, to stand up for equality by joining TEP's Equality Means Business initiative.
Show that Tennessee stands for equality for all of its citizens.