Modest victories in a difficult session, challenges remain
The 2016 legislative session has run more than half its course at this point. Sessions have gotten shorter since Republicans gained control of the General Assembly, and election years like this one are usually even a bit quicker.
So where do we stand? How are we doing? The picture is mixed, but not too bad yet.
Local resolutions: Local governments around the state have actively been considering the place of the LGBT community in our state, largely in anticipation of what the Legislature might do around the marriage issue. So let’s start there. On the negative side, Hawkins, Hickman, and Dickson Counties have recently passed resolutions urging the Legislature to do something to fight the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling.
But there are many positive developments, too. In response to almost 100 people showing up at the county commission meeting in red, Rutherford County amended its resolution to remove all references to states’ rights and marriage. So many people showed up at the Washington County Commission meeting that they had to adjourn the meeting, postponing it for another day. And the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County actually passed a pro-marriage equality resolution, thanks to Council Member Nancy VanReece and others.
Also in local government I would note that the Franklin County School Board so far has not decided to suppress the Franklin County High School GSA. At its February meeting, the board instead decided to examine the general criteria that apply to all school clubs, and they will continue that effort at their March meeting. Considering all the hatred thrown at the GSA, I would say this is a promising development.
State anti-marriage equality proposals: After some preachers shouted at the members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee and when those legislators could find no authority for state nullification of Supreme Court rulings, the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act met its demise in Legislative Plaza.
Also on the ropes is what we call a caption bill on marriage. A caption bill is filed to appear innocuous while it is actually designed to be the vehicle of something else. In other words, the intent is to fill its content with something more substantive later. In this case, we knew immediately it was dropped in the bill hopper in order to become an anti-marriage equality nightmare, but it has been deferred to the last House Civil Justice Subcommittee calendar, either because the votes aren’t there or the sponsor doesn’t yet know what to put in the bill.
One proposal that is advancing, though, is HJR529 by Rep. Susan Lynn. This resolution does NOT have the force of law, but it is designed to express the opinion of the Legislature. In this case, their opinion is that the Family Action Council of Tennessee’s lawsuits against the Williamson County and Bradley County clerks are a good way to stop marriage equality eventually. In some ways, even if it passes, the resolution is a victory for the LGBT community. It’s an admission that the Legislature couldn’t come up with a law, so they just pouted a bit.
Other discriminatory bills to watch: SB1556, the Counseling Discrimination bill by Sen. Jack Johnson, is also advancing. The bill would let counselors in private practice opt out of serving a client if the client’s goals conflict with the counselor’s sincerely held religious beliefs. Despite the denials of some legislators, we know the bill is about the LGBT community. The bill in some form is likely to pass, but it is a significant victory that Sen. Johnson amended it to require that a counselor make a referral if he or she opts out of serving a client. Other changes to the bill may emerge.
HB2414 is the destructive anti-transgender student bathroom bill by Rep. Susan Lynn. But a note is in order before we talk about her bill. Rep. Bud Hulsey announced in November that he was going to run a student bathroom bill. Because of all the feedback he received, he decided not to. Without discussing the matter with Rep. Hulsey, Rep. Lynn decided to run one anyway. So we almost beat back the possibility of any anti-transgender student bathroom legislation this year, which is a testament to the incredible response around the state. But Rep. Lynn’s bill does exist, so we will have to fight it as hard as we fought Rep. Hulsey’s bill before the session began.
What’s working: These examples are all instructive. Despite the fact that many county governments and certainly our state government are beyond socially conservative, we’re not doing too badly this year. It helps that discriminatory bills are often costly or run afoul of the Constitution, federal law, or federal regulations.
But it also helps, particularly in local government, when large numbers of equality advocates show up in unity. Most county officials around the state have no idea that there are so many LGBT people and allies who are their constituents. We need to continue to change that perception because it will filter up to the Legislature.
We can finish this legislative session with better than average results if we keep calling, emailing, and showing up. Our argument will prevail. Turn up the volume and legislators hear it even sooner. You can do that at Advancing Equality Day on the Hill on March 8. I hope we will see you there.