Advocates for LGBTQ people in Tennessee are objecting to legislation passed Thursday by the Tennessee House of Representatives, contending that the measure billed as anti-discriminatory would make it easier for businesses to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation.
House Bill 563 passed largely along party lines. The measure says local governments can't "take discriminatory actions" against businesses that adopt anti-discrimination policies that are tougher than state or federal law. The legislation goes on to define discriminatory actions as favoring companies when considering tax breaks, government contracts or access to facilities.
No mention is made of sexual orientation, but LGBTQ groups say the measure is essentially a swipe at their community. They argue the measure's purpose is to let businesses discriminate against them, with no fear of losing government work.
"This bill ties the hands of local governments in serving the needs of their residents and in using their tax dollars to attract the best jobs to their communities," says Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project.
The proposal also bans "discrimination" on the basis of a company's health insurance, family leave or minimum wage policies.
It's not clear what motivated the legislation. The measure's sponsor, Knoxville Republican Jason Zachary, says it's "proactive" because it prevents governments from taking shots at businesses with policies officials don't like.
He concedes that there has been opposition from LGBTQ groups. But he says his legislation is values-neutral.
"This is a bill that protects," Zachary says. "Whether you're Christian, Muslim, gay or straight, this is a bill that protects businesses, moving forward in the state of Tennessee, to ensure uniformity."
The measure now heads to the state Senate, which has not yet scheduled debate on the issue.