NASHVILLE (BP)–In what apparently would be a first-in-the-nation type of law impacting religious freedom, the Tennessee legislature gave final passage May 18 to a bill revoking a Nashville ordinance that protects employees based on their homosexuality or transgender status, and Southern Baptist leaders quickly appealed to Gov. Bill Haslam to sign it into law.
The Tennessee House of Representatives voted 70-26 for a Senate-approved version of the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act, which would prevent local governments from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances that go beyond existing state and federal law. It also would repeal a measure already adopted by the Nashville Metro Council.
Tennessee law already prohibits employers from discriminating based on “race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin.” The Nashville Metro Council went further in early April, requiring businesses that contract with the city to add employment policies with protections for the categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
After the House vote May 18, three Southern Baptist officials encouraged Haslam in a letter to sign the legislation. The letter was from Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC); Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee; and Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Land, Page and Davis told Haslam, a Republican, the measure would protect the religious liberty of Christian business owners in the state. The legislation also will assure the uniform application of the state’s nondiscrimination laws, thereby protecting employers from having to deal with a variety of municipal policies and maintaining the General Assembly’s authority.
Without the law, the constitutional rights of Christian business owners “may be infringed by expansive local non-discrimination laws,” Land, Page and Davis said in the letter. “It is the conviction of many that elevating ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ as a protective class is wrong. … 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 measure will provide a “safeguard from any further economic perplexity and prioritize Tennessee state law,” they told Haslam, who was elected in November.
“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.
Some opponents of the Nashville ordinance say it could lead to men using women’s restrooms. The concern over restrooms is that “gender identity” in the ordinance could mean a man who inwardly identifies as a female will have legal protection to enter a women’s restroom.
The House passed the bill in late April but was required to accept an amendment added by the Senate. Senators approved their version May 12 in a 21-8 roll call. The amendment added a severability clause, which would enable the remainder of the bill to stay in effect if a court strikes down the section rescinding the Nashville ordinance.
The ERLC became engaged on the issue at the request of Davis, Land said. The ERLC mounted a multi-pronged effort, often involving Tennessee Baptist leadership, to work for passage of the bill in the legislature. The ERLC’s efforts included emails, direct mail, faxes and phone calls to the legislature; action alerts to Tennessee Baptists, and op-eds in the news media, according to the organization. Land devoted part of his national weekend radio program to the importance of passing the state law. Among actions taken by the ERLC:
— Land, Page and Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, co-wrote a March column published in The Tennessean that expressed concern about the Metro Council’s proposal before it was approved.
— Land, Davis and Robert Sumrall, executive director of the Nashville Baptist Association, urged the Metro Council in an April 4 letter to defeat the proposed ordinance.
— Land and Davis endorsed the state legislation in an April 11 letter to House Commerce Committee members.
— Land called for support of the bill in an April 29 letter to the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee
— Land urged the Senate in a May 11 letter to approve the bill.
— Land and Davis urged Tennessee recipients of the ERLC’s email alerts to contact their senators about supporting the measure.
Land described the ERLC’s efforts as instrumental in giving voice to thousands of Southern Baptists in the state and thanked the Tennessee Baptist leadership for the opportunity to partner with the state convention to involve Southern Baptists in working for passage of the legislation.
David Fowler, president of the conservative group Family Action of Tennessee, has said the bill would be a “first-in-the-nation kind of law.”
Homosexual activists have endorsed the Nashville ordinance. The Tennessee Equality Project said the measure sends a message “that if you’re talented and willing to work, you’re welcome in Nashville.”
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press, and Van Welton, projects coordinator for the ERLC. The Southern Baptist Convention has a ministry to homosexuals. Find more information at http://www.sbcthewayout.com