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VOL. 132 | NO. 39 | Thursday, February 23, 2017

Stockard

Sam Stockard

View From the Hill: ‘Moral Mondays’ Draw Crowds, But Are Lawmakers Listening?

By Sam Stockard

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Johnny and Julie Erwin don’t look like typical protesters, but the senior couple joined the “moral Mondays” ruckus recently at the State Capitol, Johnny wearing his Air Force cap and Julie holding a list of social legislation they oppose.

“I’m just really thrilled to be part of this and see what’s going on, because I believe strongly against these bills that are being brought up,” says Johnny, a Nashville resident retired from the grocery business, as he prepares to step into a throng of people chanting outside the Senate chamber.

Julie’s list notes “anti-gay” bills brought forward this session, the so-called transgender bathroom bill, an artificial insemination bill, a move to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision and a measure reinforcing a law allowing counselors to refer patients to other people if they disagree with their lifestyle.

Though most of these surfaced in 2016 when President Barack Obama was still in office, Johnny says he believes President Donald Trump’s administration emboldens the effort.

“I really believe a lot of people have been wanting to do this a long time, and I think our new federal regime that’s come on board has brought some people out of the woodwork, and they’re doing some things they wanted to do all along,” he adds. “And I think they feel like they’ve got the power to do it, and we’re gonna prove that they don’t.”

Julie points out gay parents are afraid their marriages, as well as their children, could be declared null and void as a result of these legislative moves.

“This is a travesty that cannot be allowed to happen. It’s absolutely insane,” she says.

They speak as people hold signs saying, “We are watching” and shout in unison “No 127!” 

The “127” bill would prohibit state and local governments from “taking discriminatory action against a business based on that business’s internal policies,” which LGBT supporters consider to be a move to avoid punishing companies and entities that refuse services to gay and transgender people. (The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Mark Green, a Clarksville Republican running for governor.)

Yet another puzzling piece of legislation proposed by Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster would repeal the statute deeming a child born to a married woman as a result of artificial insemination, with consent of the married woman’s husband, to be the legitimate child of the husband and wife.

Opponents decry the measure as one that could stop both names of parents in a same-sex marriage from appearing on a child’s birth certificate, thus affecting parental decisions dealing with everything from health care to school.

Not long after filing their bill, Weaver and Hensley castigated what they called “inaccurate” media reports, saying it would not label a child born to a husband and wife by artificial insemination as “illegitimate.”

“Under this legislation, Tennessee law would continue to provide that a child born to a married woman will be considered the child of her husband. By repealing the law, and relying on other Tennessee statutes that remain, the state will no longer intrude into how a woman conceives her child,” Weaver says in a statement.

Their statement doesn’t address the concerns of same-sex couples, especially lesbian couples who might have a child through artificial insemination.

In a Facebook post, Weaver states she sponsored the measure because Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery filed a brief in an East Tennessee lawsuit saying the bill she’s trying to repeal was unconstitutional. Weaver says another law is on the books already making it clear if a child is born to a married woman, it is presumed to be that of her husband.

“So, the repeal of the law does not de-legitimize a child conceived by insemination and, to be honest, the law that will remain on the books is less intrusive into the relationship of a husband and wife than the statute being repealed,” she writes. 

Weaver adds, “HB 1406 does not apply to same sex marriages at all!!!! Conflicting laws have got to be repealed, families and lives are affected.”

However, an Associated Press article points out Slatery’s filing supports the existing law’s constitutionality, saying the state law should not be seen as applying to “the legitimate child of two spouses,” in the wake of the high court’s same-sex ruling.

Meanwhile, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville calls the Weaver-Hensley legislation “the most ill-conceived and offensive bill” he has seen in the Legislature, and adds “that’s saying something.”

Is anybody out there?

But while the “moral Mondays” crowd started the night of Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address and is maintaining momentum, to the point more security and dividers are needed to keep lawmakers away from the people, the question is whether legislators are listening.

If bills by Sen. Mae Beavers and Rep. Mark Pody are any indication, conservatives are closing their ears while most Democrats, few though they may be, are welcoming the noise.

Beavers and Pody want to reject the court’s same-sex marriage decision and revive last year’s measure to require public schools and state colleges to designate people use restrooms based on the sex on their birth certificate.

The duo received a rude welcome, though, when they tried to hold a press conference introducing the legislation. 

Predictably, the meeting room was filled with people holding signs saying, “Flush the bathroom bill,” “No homophobic laws in Tennessee,” “Supreme Court says my marriage is as good as yours” and – what protest would be complete without rhymes – “No hate in our state.”

Apparently expecting to be met with enthusiasm, Pody launched into a defense of the “Defense of Natural Marriage Act,” reminding the protesters that 80 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment recognizing marriage in Tennessee as an act between one man and one woman and telling them any other marriage contrary to those guidelines would be unenforceable.

Clearly, the protesters disagreed and started shouting at them to kill the bill. Instead of reversing course and taking the bills off notice, they walked out. Beavers didn’t even get the chance to speak, which was a great disappointment to most of those attending. In fact, many marveled at Beavers’ foot speed.

Not satisfied to see them walking away, the crowd of several dozen people followed them out of the room and down the hallway, confronting Pody and demanding to be heard after Beavers slipped into the sanctity of her office.

Even though one young woman pleaded with Pody, saying, “We just want to live our life,” he remained unfazed. After all, he campaigned for re-election on this bill. He told a reporter later that wanting to become the other sex is no different than if he wanted to be 70 years old so he could collect Social Security.

Well, maybe it’s just a tad different. There’s a reason being publicly gay or transgender is termed “coming out of the closet.” It’s a monumental decision, one that defines a person’s life, often causing them to be degraded and separated from friends and family.

To say anything less is simply to misunderstand the situation, which is nothing new for our Legislature.

More security on the way

Legislative leadership’s reaction to the Pody-Beavers pursuit is to make it harder for people to get in by resuming old rules requiring people to show an ID and wear a nametag. That policy was scrapped last session because lines were backing up and it was taking forever – a long time – for people to get into the building.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally acknowledges such steps won’t stop people from entering the Plaza, but he says it’ll let security know who’s gaining access to the building.

“And I think people having nametags on, it’s a little bit of a deterrent to being violent or disruptive,” McNally explains.

The lieutenant governor says he believes the protesters’ actions were protected under the Constitution, and it must be pointed out this was not a legislative hearing but a press conference. But he adds shouting down Pody and Beaver “impedes the free discussion of ideas between a legislator and his constituents.”

Pressed on whether it’s worth it to return to the days of long waits to get into Legislative Plaza, McNally says, “We’re gonna try to have enough staff there to prevent those situations from occurring and try to update some of the security procedures about people entering the building. 

“But at the same time, we’d like to know who’s coming and going and who has proper access and who goes through and is checked for weapons and things like that.”

More than likely, however, people protesting in the Legislative Plaza and State Capitol are less likely to be carrying a weapon than some of the state legislators. 

Other than screaming and hollering, these folks haven’t shown much of a penchant for violence, though one man who asked Pody why he was so concerned about his sex life said he would continue to hold him accountable. 

The analysis

This whole thing reminds me of a Beale Street Music Festival a few years ago. Old-time rocker Jerry Lee Lewis was playing when we arrived, and as he rolled through a classic, thousands of young people in the audience knocked a beach ball around the place. 

When he finished the song, the annoyed Lewis pointed toward the crowd and said, “Quit bouncing that ball.” 

The ball came down immediately.

In Capitol Hill, though, the ball probably isn’t coming down anytime soon. It’s no different than the honkers during the income tax debate.

As “moral Mondays” protester Sandra Barrett of Franklin says, “We want to let our representatives know we are watching them, and we’re keeping up with the decisions they’re making.”

Barrett says the protests stem from the “horrible, big picture” nationwide, encompassing everything from hatred to racism and inequality. 

But while Lt. Gov. McNally say he’s more concerned with matters such as the budget, job creation and education, these “wedge” issues will continue to dominate the General Assembly until someone in leadership hears the people and puts an end to nonsensical measures that do little but divide.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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