The Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act, H.B. 600, would prohibit local municipalities from adopting nondiscrimination ordinances that go beyond existing state and federal law.
In a voice vote April 12, the Tennessee House Commerce Committee overwhelmingly passed the bill. The proposal may be considered by the full House as early as the week of April 25.
Tennessee law already prohibits employers from discriminating based on "race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin," but the Nashville City Council went further in a measure approved April 5. In a 21-15 vote, the council required businesses that contract with the city to add employment policies with protections for the categories of "sexual orientation" and "gender identity."
"Sexual orientation" can encompass homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as transgender status. "Gender identity" is a term that "refers to a person's innate, deeply felt psychological identification as male or female, which may or may not correspond to the person's body or designated sex at birth," according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest homosexual organization.
Ethicist Richard Land -- joined by other Southern Baptist leaders -- expressed concern about the Nashville ordinance before the council's vote and has endorsed H.B. 600. The Southern Baptist leaders warned the Nashville ordinance would, among other things, threaten the religious liberty of business owners who view homosexuality as immoral and even allow men access to women's restrooms.
The ordinance has an exception for religious-oriented businesses, but critics have said it doesn't go far enough.
The concern over restrooms is that "gender identity" in the ordinance could mean a man who inwardly identifies as a woman can begin using a woman's restroom.
In March, Land and fellow Southern Baptist leaders Frank Page and Thom Rainer co-wrote a column published in The Tennessean asserting the proposal could drive up costs because of litigation. They also said it could imperil religious freedom and allow men access to women's restrooms. Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Page is president of the Executive Committee and Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources.
In an April 5 letter to House Commerce Committee members, Land and Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, expressed concern over local jurisdictions that create expansive non-discrimination policies. "Their actions circumvent the authority of the Tennessee General Assembly while introducing confusion into the state's trade and industry," they said.
Land and Davis urged support of H.B. 600 because it would protect the religious liberty of Christian business owners who may disagree with a local nondiscrimination regulation based on their faith convictions. The leaders pointed out it is the "conviction of many that elevating 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity' as a protective class is wrong." They said, "There is no evidence to dictate equating homosexual behavior with immutable distinctiveness. To do so mitigates the value of inalienable rights and trivializes the effort of those who seek to protect them."
The Tennessee Equality Project, a homosexual group, said the measure sends a message "that if you're talented and willing to work, you're welcome in Nashville."
Supporters of H.B. 600 contend it is necessary to ensure the uniform application of the state's nondiscrimination laws to business owners. Introducing the bill, Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican, said "the more laws that you have that are not uniform ... it is a hurdle that the small businessman cannot overcome." Casada further argued that without H.B. 600 he could see "a whole plethora of convoluted and ill-advised laws in each town to appease their specific constituency group and it would just be chaos to try to do business in those towns."
Prior to the Commerce Committee's final approval, the bill's opponents introduced an amendment that would have excluded Nashville from the retroactive requirements of the bill. The amendment was tabled by a 21-7 margin.
The text of H.B. 600 may be accessed online at http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0600.pdf.
Van Welton is the projects coordinator for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.
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