Lisa Howe, the lesbian soccer coach whose departure from Belmont University caused an uproar, joined Monday in filing a lawsuit challenging the state legislature for overturning Nashville’s new anti-gay bias ordinance.
The lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court contends the state law violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by singling out gay people for denial of the right to seek legal protection from discrimination.
“This law is contrary to core Tennessee values,” said Abby Rubenfeld, the lawsuit’s lead attorney. “Tennessee is the volunteer state. We help each other. We don’t single out certain Tennesseans who are deemed unworthy of help. Our legislators abused their power by preventing localities from assisting their own citizens. Rather than considering what is best for our state, they passed a law based on disapproval of gay and transgender people, which the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions do not permit.”
The Metro Council voted 21-15 to approve the ordinance in April, banning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people by companies doing business with the city. The state legislation, signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam only three weeks ago, nullified that ordinance and barred any Tennessee city from adopting any such law in the future.
Howe is the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff. Her supporters say she was forced from her job at Belmont, sparking student protests, late last year after telling her team that she was gay and her partner was pregnant. The controversy prompted Metro Council members to introduce the anti-gay bias ordinance.
“I want my daughter to grow up in a state that treats everyone equally,” said Howe, who attended a news conference on the Metro Courthouse steps with her partner and baby. “This lawsuit is necessary because the legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
Plaintiffs also include council members Erik Cole, Mike Jameson and Erica Gilmore, and Shirit Pankowsky, a student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School and president of the school’s gay/straight alliance.
Pankowsky said she joined the lawsuit because the state law also nullifies a Metro schools policy aimed at protecting gay students from bullying.
“Why is it that the state of Tennessee should have to tell students that they are protected from guns and knives in the classroom but not their own peers?” she said.
The state law’s chief sponsor, Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, was unavailable for comment on the lawsuit. But lawmakers consistently denied during the past session that they were discriminating against gay people. Instead, they insisted they merely were trying to prevent burdensome and confusing new business regulations from popping up around the state.
Rubenfeld pointed to a 1996 Supreme Court ruling — Romer v. Evans — that threw out Colorado’s anti-gay constitutional amendment. It would have repealed anti-gay discrimination ordinances in Aspen, Boulder and Denver, and prohibited the passage of any future such ordinances.
The court ruled the amendment violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. Laws may disadvantage specific groups but only if they advance what’s deemed a legitimate government interest. Depriving gay people of their rights failed to advance such a legitimate interest, the court ruled.
Constitutional law experts point out that Colorado specifically prohibited municipalities from outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Tennessee’s case is not as clear.
That’s because the state law never mentions homosexuality. Instead, it prohibits cities from extending protections against discrimination to categories not mentioned in Tennessee’s statewide civil rights law. That law, while barring discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin, does not include sexual orientation or gender identity.