Judge orders more proof in lawsuit against Tennessee over non-discrimination law

Cancellor Carol L. McCoy of the Davidson County Chancery Court in Nashville has issued a preliminary order in Howe v. Haslam.

Howe is the highly publicized case challenging the Tennessee Legislature’s enactment of HB 600, which overturned a Metro non-discrimination ordinance by prohibiting municipalities and counties, including local school districts, from enacting local laws or school policies that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination. The order gives the plaintiffs in the case 30 days to provide additional proof that they have been harmed by the law to avoid having the case dismissed.

The plaintiffs, who include Nashville local elected officials, students, teachers, and GLBT rights organizations, filed the lawsuit in June of 2011 because the law violates the equal protection guarantees of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. The lawsuit alleges that the statute harms the plaintiffs by stripping them of existing rights and protections, putting them at risk of discrimination, and preventing them from obtaining protection from discrimination from municipal and county governments.  

After filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs asked the Court to require disclosure of  communications between the Family Action Council, an anti-gay group involved in creating the bill, and the bill’s legislative sponsors.

"We are disappointed that the Court did not simply order the legislators and the Family Action Council of Tennessee to produce the evidence being withheld from us, but we welcome this opportunity to provide even more proof of the significant harms caused by this mean-spirited and destructive law," said Abby Rubenfeld, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "This statute prohibits local elected officials from representing all of their constituents, makes gay and transgender students targets for constant harassment, ties the hands of teachers who want to protect all students from bullying, and attempts to overturn federal law that protects transgender Tennesseans from sex discrimination. These are real and serious harms, and these plaintiffs along with other Tennesseans deserve protection from the courts."

"HB 600 is especially harmful to gay and transgender youth, who are already vulnerable to bullying and harassment," said plaintiff Lisa Howe, the former soccer coach at Belmont University. "When we allow legislators to pass laws based on prejudice toward gay and transgender people, we create an environment of intolerance and hostility that fuels violence and discrimination. That is not what this state is or should be about."

"As a transgender woman, before HB600 passed, I had the same legal protections as other women in this state, but HB600 took those away," said Dr. Marisa Richmond, President of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. "By passing this mean-spirited law, the legislature has declared open season on transgender people and declared us to be non-people who are not entitled to equal protection of the laws. This is exactly why we need the courts—to ensure that laws apply equally to everyone, and not just to the majority."      

Rubenfeld said that the plaintiffs will file a response to the Court’s order emphasizing the previously stated harm to these plaintiffs and other Tennesseans and outlining why the case should not be dismissed.

“Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case challenging a similar law that ‘if the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest,’ ” said Rubenfeld, referring to Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that also barred localities from prohibiting discrimination against gay people. “It is readily apparent to those of us who witnessed the adoption of this challenged law that its actual purpose and intent was to harm LGBT Tennesseans, and it continues to harm them every day it remains on the books.”

“Everyone loses when governments are permitted to target certain groups for unequal treatment,” said Rubenfeld, “and we will fight with everything we have to overturn this shameful and discriminatory law.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Nashville attorney Rubenfeld, the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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