With one Day on the Hill under his belt and two more (at least) still in the planning, Tennessee Equality Project’s Chris Sanders sat down with us to discuss how the year has been shaping up so far, what may still lie ahead, and how we can be engaged with the legislative process every day. And all I can tell you is that it’s going to be a bumpy ride…
What’s the climate like amongst activists on the hill this year?
A lot of people are excited about the President. That word might have been misleading, but you know what I mean by it…
That is driving people into all levels of activism, and then on top of that, of course, you've got the perennial issues of our state legislature. They are not disappointing this year. They are definitely bringing the same level of hate they brought last year. I think for those who want to get involved, this is a great time to jump in, because we absolutely need them… These are troubling times and we need all hands on deck.
February saw our first Day on the Hill of this year. What did the agenda look like, and what were people doing?
They were really only focused on a few bills then. We didn't at that point have the Bathroom Bill and the latest anti-marriage equality bill filed. They were focusing on the counseling discrimination bill, which is now on hold in favor of a different administrative kind of tinkering. They were working on Senate Bill 127, which is a RFRA-in-disguise bill. They were also working on the LGBT erasure bill. Those were the three that were focused on the first day.
Thirty people visited fourteen lawmakers, and they did very well. Of course, most of the district captains had been through Lobbying 101... They indicated they were prepared, and I think they gathered good information. You don't always change a mind, but you gather intel. Everybody brought back in their reports, which was useful to us.
Counseling discrimination has been dropped in favor of this broader measure about licensing. What do you make of this? Is it an end-run that should scare us?
I'm told of about 75% of professions that are licensed already have to go through the Government Office Committee to get changes to their licensing procedures anyway. So it's already something that has to go through a government office. This just puts all the professions on an even footing. They've all got to go through Government Office now.
Do I think it's the ideal outcome? No, but it's better than passing legislation on a particular field when that is charged with all kinds of LGBT implications. That's what we're avoiding, so I think this is a good outcome.
If the license comes from the state, the legislature can determine how that license is granted, how it's updated. It's a shift, but it's in the end not a huge shift, I don't think, because they're already doing it with so many other professions anyway.
I think some people are a little confused about the professions themselves: there are independent means for censuring members of professional organizations. This wouldn't change that at all, would it?
Right, exactly right. The ACA could denounce or censure or sanction or whatever a member of its own organization… They could speak against what that counselor was doing, absolutely.
What do you view as the top priorities now that the last bills have been filed?
Under President Obama people assumed that the federal government would intervene to withhold funding and so forth if certain bills last year were passed. Under this President, I think it's extremely unlikely that states will get punished [for passing bad laws], so we have to take all of them seriously, even ones that we would have viewed as rather clownish last year, like the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act.
I would say the top priority is probably going to be the trans bathroom bill, because that is so dangerous to those students. We just cannot go through that again.
The father/mother/husband/wife bill is very dangerous. The Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act is dangerous. Senate Bill 127 is very likely a mini RFRA in disguise, as I've said, and if the analysis continues to bear that out, that's a very dangerous bill too.
Just a little bit more information about the bill that you described as a mini RFRA bill: Are there any standout points that makes this different than the ones we've seen before in other places, or is it pretty much what we've seen before but here?
No, this is different. This is another effort to cloak this, but what it does is it uses the word discrimination in there, but instead of individuals being the victim of discrimination, this bill posits that there are businesses and nonprofits out there that are being discriminated against by government.
Why might a business or a nonprofit not be selected by government for a contract? For example … if that business or nonprofit refused to serve everyone? That's where it's tricky or clever. Whether you want to praise it or blame it, it's devious. That's why it's something we really need to watch.
It sounds almost like it's building off the law that was passed to keep local governments from passing protections beyond state anti-discrimination ordinances.
I think you're right. I think House Bill 600 from 2011 does take care of most anti-discrimination powers of local government, but this adds a little bit of extra layer. I would definitely put this high in the second tier of bills, but again the top would be the anti-trans bill, the LGBT erasure bill, and the marriage bill for now. Again, I don't know what's involved today, but I'd say those three are the top three that we've got to work on first, and then we'll need to get busy with the others.
The erasure bill... How does that expand what we're already seeing?
Sure. If you're in the midst of a divorce case and suddenly this bill passes, God forbid, and let's say you are in a far-flung part of the state. The judge can say "Look, you're no longer a husband according to Tennessee law. I've got to stop these proceedings." Husband, naturally, ordinarily, means a husband to a wife.
Or let’s say you're in the midst of establishing custody. If you've got two women and one of them has given birth, the other one can't be listed as a mother, and can't even be construed legally as a mother then. Mother means the one who gave birth, or the female parent. If there's clearly one who's already given birth, then this other woman legally is nothing. It could hit a variety of situations.
Besides upcoming Days on the Hill, what is TEP doing right now?
Lobbying 101 is continuing, and we have other events around the state where we are engaging more communities. I'm on the Hill about one day a week now, and spending most of my time getting out in the state.
I was in Sumner County last night, where we're starting a new committee. We had 22 people up in Gallatin! In Franklin County, and we had about 15 people at that first meeting. There's a meeting next month in Winchester.
We're trying to reach some places where you haven't had a committee, that are red areas, that are challenges, but we need people from those areas contacting their own lawmakers. Yes, we're hitting the big cities, but we're trying to spend as much time as possible in other parts of the state.
Our next two Day on the Hill events are in March and April. By that time, these bills may have advanced a little further. In the meantime, what can people do?
Though not associated with us, there're events that take place every Monday at the Capitol called the “We Are Watching” rallies. If people want to attend those, you should look for that on Facebook. If you do, bring LGBT-specific signs about specific bills we're facing and hold those.
We will have ways for people to contact their lawmakers soon, because those bills will be hitting committee… And of course can call their own legislators at any time. Just go to capitol.tn.gov and find their own two legislators, and just call them right up. They can leave a message with the legislative assistant or they can email them.
If you email, put "Vote no on" and then the name and number of the bill, because if the legislator is getting a bunch of emails and doesn't have time to read the body, then they use subject line to calculate the numbers of emails they get on each side.
In a phone call, you want to establish that you're a constituent, if you are, and what you want them to do. That's all you're doing in the phone call.
Do you think a phone call is more effective than an email?
It definitely gives notice, yes, but the most effective thing is, if you're able, to be part of a personal visit. Unlike in Congress, where you probably are going to meet with staff, generally speaking in the legislature you meet with either a Representative or a Senator directly.
Photo credit: Jennifer Sheridan