Earlier this year, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill prohibiting local governments from requiring businesses which had contracts with them to agree not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Its purpose was to torpedo a Nashville city ordinance adopted in April, which it did.
The Tennessean has now published the fascinating back story behind the conservatives' campaign to kill anti-discrimination protections. The article is based on documents obtained in discovery in a lawsuit filed by proponents of the anti-discrimination law, represented by Abby Rubenfeld (photo).
It is surely a sign of the times that the successful lobbyist for the Tennessee Family Action Council used a strategy of not highlighting religious or moral objections to homosexuality when doing outreach to members of the state legislature. Instead, he painted the blockage of equal employment rights as pro-business, a gambit that paid off even though a number of businesses supported the Nashville ordinance and opposed the state law invalidating it.
Increasingly, an open and supportive environment for lgbt people is seen as going hand in glove with economic development. Not exactly a noble path to equal treatment under law, but it drives a wedge into conservative states when cities like Nashville, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama start attracting knowledge industries in significant numbers.
From the Tennessean:
The chief lobbyist for a state law that invalidated Metro protections for gay and transgendered individuals feared his moral thoughts on the measure would become public and distract from the economic argument he used to sell the bill, documents reveal.
Emails written by David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee and a former state senator, are included in thousands of pages of correspondence lawmakers submitted as part of a court battle over the constitutionality of the state law. The pending lawsuit alleges the law was motivated by prejudice rather than the economic concerns that were publicly argued.
The law dubbed the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act nullified an ordinance the Metro Council passed in April requiring city contractors to pledge not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The ordinance extended protections already given to employees based on age, race, sex, color, national origin and disability, and it required contractors to follow a nondiscrimination policy Metro adopted for its own employees in 2009...
"Metro Council here in Nashville is considering requiring private businesses that do business with the city and those who lease property from the city have an employment policy to protect homosexual conduct and cross-dressing, etc.," Fowler wrote in a Jan. 26 email to individuals including state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. Fowler described how he hoped to persuade the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to oppose Metro's planned ordinance. "Metro passed its homosexual ordinance for Metro employees by 24 to 15 in 2009 so the Council is clearly liberal.
"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." Again, Fowler concluded the email by asking recipients not to share it. "We sure don't need any loose lips getting word to the Chamber about what I think and for sure not (the Tennessee Equality Project)!" he wrote...
Fowler continued to write legislators throughout the 2011 legislative session. While he cited concerns that Nashville's ordinance would force Christian businesspeople to compromise their religious beliefs to do business with Metro, he coached lawmakers to stick with the economic argument and provided them with statements denying assertions that the law was "about preventing homosexual and transgender rights."
"We don't need more regulation of business and business sure doesn't need the 348 different cities coming up with their own ideas of what a discriminatory practice is," Fowler wrote state Sen. Mae Beavers on April 26. "That's the line and you just repeat it like (Rep.) Glen Casada did last night when the bill passed the House 73 to 24"...
The law was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May after easily clearing the General Assembly. Some state business groups such as the Associated General Contractors of Tennessee supported the law, but major companies such as Alcoa, Nissan and DuPont publicly opposed it.
A coalition of activists, Metro Council members, the Tennessee Equality Project and others sued the state over the law in June, claiming it is unconstitutional because "it was founded in prejudice" and violates equal-protection standards.
"The few emails we have obtained show a purposeful plan for a 'party line,' so to speak, so that legislators only say certain things publicly to support the alleged purpose that the Family Action Council wanted them to state," said Nashville attorney Abby Rubenfeld, who is representing the plaintiffs. "It is clear that this statute was adopted to stop local governments from adopting non-discrimination protections that include sexual orientation."
Questioned Monday about the correspondence turned over by lawmakers, Fowler said that the Family Action Council was indeed concerned about Christian businesspeople's religious liberty and "right to conscience" in addition to economic concerns. He said it is not unusual for lobbyists to encourage lawmakers to focus on certain arguments over others and provide talking points...