On a crisp, snowy Wednesday morning earlier this month, cars began arriving at the iced-over parking lot outside the downtown LifeWay building around 6:45 a.m. One by one, passengers hopped out of their vehicles, walked down a salted entrance, and picked up personalized nametags at the building’s front desk.
“Who are all these people?” a befuddled female employee of the Southern Baptist-affiliate company asked.
“There’s a special meeting today,” a man, apparently more connected to the higher-ups, responded.
It wasn’t just any gathering. Inside were notable business leaders, Christian-right organizers and Republican lawmakers preparing talking points and plotting their strategy to defeat a proposed Metro ordinance that would require companies contracting with the city to adopt nondiscrimination employment policies that include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Among those who turned out for the occasion — hosted by David Fowler, a former Republican state senator who heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee — were businessmen such as Lee Beaman of Beaman Automotive Group and Stan Hardaway, president of Hardaway Construction; Bill Phillips, former deputy mayor of Bill Purcell’s administration who now works as a lobbyist; and a pair of Republicans: state Rep. Glen Casada of Williamson County and Jim Gotto, currently serving a dual role as state representative and Metro councilman.
The focus of the event was a pending bill — inspired by the controversial December departure of Belmont women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe, after she revealed to her team that she and her female partner are expecting a child — that would extend the nondiscrimination policy adopted in 2009 for Metro workers to companies that do business with city government. All Davidson County businesses are already forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, national origin and disability. The proposal, only pertaining to Metro contactors, would essentially add four words to a company’s employment policy: sexual orientation, gender identity.
“I think it’s a natural extension of the nondiscrimination policy that they put into place in 2009,” Howe told The City Paper last week. Howe, who is still searching for a new job, said she supports the ordinance and hopes to become an advocate for its approval in the weeks ahead.
“Three council members individually on their own accord went to our legal adviser and asked, ‘What legislation could have prevented this in the first place?’ ” bill co-sponsor Councilman Mike Jameson said, referring to Howe’s departure and the fact that Belmont has a contract with Metro. “This is the legislation that resulted.”
But opposition is fierce and organized. The email invitation to the LifeWay meeting came from William Morgan, president of John Bouchard & Sons Co. In it, he described the proposal as part of the “homosexual agenda,” and the first step in one day requiring all companies in Davidson County to adhere to an updated nondiscrimination law. “The meeting will lay out the wide-reaching impact of this ordinance, what can be done to defeat it,” the email read.
With Nashville’s fairgrounds debate now on hold for a while, the nondiscrimination ordinance is poised to become the council’s next hot-button issue. But there are several questions: Will Howe’s departure from Belmont spur new public policy? Is Nashville’s identity one of progressivism or conservatism? And will Mayor Karl Dean, sometimes reluctant to weigh in on controversial issues, take a stand one way or the other?
Exiting the 90-minute meeting at the LifeWay building, business leaders declined to talk to a City Paper reporter who wasn’t granted admission and waited in the lobby. Gotto and Casada, however, didn’t shy away. Heading to his car, Gotto said the bill could have a “chilling effect” on businesses in Nashville.
Conservatives, led by the two Republican officials, left with a two-pronged strategy to defeat the bill. The first tactic — pulling the bill separately on a rare first-reading vote — failed last week, as the council voted 22-13 to move it to committee. The council is now scheduled to consider the proposal on a crucial second of three votes in February, though bill sponsors have indicated they plan to defer the legislation for at least one meeting.
The second scheme, working now in the background, is Casada’s plan to file a state bill that he said would prevent local municipalities in Tennessee from imposing nondiscrimination policies that protect gay, lesbian and transgender employees. The Republican legislator said he plans to sit down with attorneys and businessmen on Tuesday to draft the bill.
“I am going to do this,” Casada affirmed last week. “It’s more than Nashville. My concern is every city in this state having a hodgepodge of laws related in business, in this case, to transgender — that kind of thing. I don’t want every little local community putting these regulations in place on our small businesses and even medium-sized companies.”
Though it’s impossible to know exactly what the discourse was like inside the closed-door conservative strategy session, a few themes leaked out. According to one source, an organizer said conservatives are doing an effective job of confronting these issues on the statewide and federal levels, but often neglect local governments. They characterized the Metro Council as an increasingly liberal body. Also of note, the source relayed how organizers discussed the advantage of framing the debate as a business issue rather than a moral, Christian one.
Still, a resistance to extending rights for the LGBT community seems to be fueling much of the opposition. Manning the door at the gathering was David Shelley, a pastor at Nashville’s Smith Springs Baptist Church, who serves as Truth Project trainer for the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
“I believe homosexual behavior is not only morally wrong, it’s abhorrent, it’s unnatural,” Shelley said. “It prevents the species from reproducing and continuing, and it’s certainly not something that should be given special protection by law.”
Predictably, the nondiscrimination bill has already met with criticism from the council’s right-wing members, who voted against Metro’s nondiscrimination policy two years ago and against the new bill on first reading last week.
“I’m not going to say that doesn’t play a part of it,” Councilman Robert Duvall said when asked if part of the concern is based on the explicit protection for gay citizens. “But I don’t think that has to be the primary focus.
“I don’t want us imposing any additional restrictions on any business or vendor that wants to do business with the government,” Duvall said. “If we do that, there’s going to be people that walk away that could have done a better quality job, had a better preparation of the scope of work and possibly had a better price. We’ll alienate those people.”
Councilman Jamie Hollin, another co-sponsor of the bill, believes the government-interference rationale is a front. “The argument that it’s an intrusion upon private business, I believe, is a mirage to cover the prejudice against homosexuality,” he said.
“If adding this language to our procurement code is an intrusion into private business, then we’re already intruding into private business by making Metro contractors not discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender and handicap,” he said. “Any private business that’s out there, they can hate and discriminate with abandon on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. When this passes, they could continue to do so; however, if they’re elected to receive a Metro contract, they would be prohibited from doing so.”
Big players still mum
In the weeks ahead, bill sponsors will be watching two key stakeholders that still haven’t weighed in on the ordinance: the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office. (See related story here.)
Last week, chamber spokeswoman Stephanie Coleman told The City Paper the chamber still doesn’t have an official position but is getting feedback from members.
Dean, who supported the 2009 ordinance pertaining to Metro workers, hasn’t revealed his position on the legislation either. But in a December interview, the mayor was hesitant to support such a bill that, in his words, could lead to the more regulation of business.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t consider something,” Dean said in December. “You have to look at everything. But my natural sense is that we should not be over-regulating the private sector.”