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VOL. 132 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Flurry of Bills Affecting LGBT Community Filed in State Legislature Before Deadline

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Tennessee lawmakers met last Thursday’s legislation-filing deadline with a host of social measures one Memphis representative describes as “wedge bills” because they drive people apart.

Legislation largely affects the state’s LGBT community and includes counseling guidelines and an attempt to sidestep the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

Joe Towns

“Those bills are not improving the lives of Tennesseans,” says Rep. Joe Towns, who represents District 84.

For instance, legislation dubbed the transgender bathroom bill, which would require students to use the restroom and locker room assigned to their sex at birth, is set for debate in the General Assembly again this year after being dropped late in the 2016 session. It affects students in all public schools and state colleges and universities.

State Rep. Mark Pody, a Lebanon Republican carrying the measure in the House, says he campaigned on the issue last year.

“I can’t campaign one way, saying I’m going to do this and then change now that I’m here and not do what I said I would do,” Pody says, adding he “absolutely” believes Tennessee needs to deal with the matter. 

Pody declined to comment further, saying he and Sen. Mae Beavers, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, are set to hold a press conference later this week to discuss their effort.

Legislation on the same matter fell flat in 2016 when the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, opted not to bring it to a vote on the House floor. 

Pody and Beavers also are sponsoring the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act, stating the policy of Tennessee is to defend natural marriage between one man and one woman regardless of any court decision to the contrary.

The legislation is a response to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 when the court guaranteed the right to same-sex marriages in a 5-4 decision. The high court found such marriages are allowed by due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

State government ordered county clerk offices across Tennessee to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples shortly after the decision.

Towns contends Republicans should be focused on the governor’s transportation initiative and economic development.

“Everything does not have to be corrosive and confrontational,” Towns says. “We should be in sync on some things that really address the everyday lives of citizens, their everyday needs.”

Counseling bill fallout

Republican legislators today are set to address a California ban on state-funded and state-sponsored travel to Tennessee connected with the 2016 law allowing counselors to avoid services to people whose lifestyles don’t fit their beliefs. 

The move by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Tennessee and Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, is in response to the Golden State’s measure, which it took based on the Tennessee Legislature’s move to toss out the American Counseling Association code of ethics and allow services to be denied to gay, lesbian and transgender people. 

The resolution, which encourages Tennessee leaders to consider “strong reciprocal action,” states the California ban stems from legislation enacted here allowing counselors to refer patients to others who can “better meet their goals, which the California State Legislature has judged to be morally reprehensible.”

It states California’s effort is similar to Tennessee “expressing its disapproval of California’s exorbitant taxes, spiraling budget deficits, runaway social welfare programs and rampant illegal immigrants.”

In addition, it states, “Tennessee is puzzled why California thinks it is a good idea to prohibit its state colleges and universities from participating in athletic competition in Tennessee (March Madness comes to Memphis this year via the South Regional), Kansas, Mississippi and North Carolina.”

The resolution also notes this kind of ban, “the result of legitimate disagreements about government policy, is neither persuasive nor productive for either party and will lead to economic warfare among states,” with one sovereign entity trying to tell another how to act.

Senate Bill 1 dropped

Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican, announced recently he will not push legislation requiring the State Board of Professional Counselors to come up with its own code of ethics, minus the section allowing counselors to sidestep gay and transgender patients. 

Instead, he will support a measure by Sen. Bell of Riceville requiring all professional groups in Tennessee to bring their codes of ethics before the Legislature, subject to the state’s Uniform Administration Procedures Act, any times changes are made.

The legislation is designed to make sure all professions are treated “equally,” Johnson says.

Lee Harris

Bell points out the legislation will be “prospective, not retrospective.” Consequently, the law adopted in 2016 allowing counselors to deny services to some people will remain in effect.

Despite that caveat, state Sen. Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat, called the development a victory for the LGBT community.

“Today is a great day for people who believe that everyone should not have the same access to counseling services, regardless of whether they are LGBT or not,” Harris says in a statement. “I want to congratulate the citizens, the organizations and the clergy who worked to make sure everyone can see a counselor no matter who they love.”

The new bill, though, could prove to be “troublesome and unwieldy” by adding new bureaucratic steps for professional groups to follow, Harris says.

“The members of these professions just want to do their jobs without having to unnecessarily worry about interference from government,” Harris says.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com. 

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