A leading Tennessee gay rights advocate accused House Speaker Beth Harwell Monday of pandering to “the extreme religious right” by supporting legislation to overturn Nashville’s antidiscrimination ordinance.
“I don’t believe someone with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt thinks that a nondiscrimination law is a ‘burden’ for businesses, except businesses that revel in discrimination,” Chris Sanders, chairman of the Tennessee Equality Project’s Nashville Committee, said in an open letter to Harwell.
The Metro ordinance, signed into law on Friday by Mayor Karl Dean, extends protections against workplace discrimination to gays, lesbians and transgender people working at businesses contracting with the city government.
The Metro Council approved it last week by a vote of 21-15. The next day, the House Commerce Subcommittee voted for legislation to nullify the ordinance and bar all Tennessee cities from enacting their own policies against gay, lesbian and transgender discrimination.
Harwell, a Republican representing Green Hills, said she supports the state legislation because she believes ordinances like Metro’s are an unfair burden on businesses.
“I think it will garner the support to pass. I will vote for it,” she said. “When a local government mandates to private businesses what their policy regarding employment should be, I do think it’s enough for the state to step in and say that’s not appropriate.”
In his letter, Sanders pointed out that the sponsor of the state legislation, Rep. Glen Casada of College Grove, ran against Harwell for House speaker after last year’s elections. Sanders said gay rights groups saw Harwell as more moderate than Casada, a Tea Party Republican.
But her position on the anti-bias ordinance shows she’s no more reasonable than the extremists in her party, Sanders said.
“Perhaps your statements will salvage your party’s relationship with the extreme religious right, but I wonder whether they’ll ever be satisfied until they push you completely against the wall,” Sanders wrote. “It’s presumptuous for someone with my limited government experience to advise you, but I would urge you to count the cost before you make your final decision on HB0600. Your place in history might be compromised by publicly enabling people who are trying to undo gains for equal rights in Tennessee. Please, don’t abandon your leadership role, your wisdom, your neighbors, and your constituents.”
At Friday’s signing ceremony, Dean was joined by Belmont University benefactor Mike Curb, a major Republican political donor. The ordinance was introduced during the controversy over whether Belmont fired its women’s soccer coach, Lisa Howe, because she is a lesbian. At that time, Curb was outspokenly in favor of workplace protections for gays, and he criticized Republicans in the legislature on Friday.
“The Republican Party has always stood for allowing decisions to be made by local governments, and the argument that this bill is anti-business is no different than the same arguments people made years ago to prevent race and religion from being protected through anti-discrimination laws," Curb said.
Dean praised the Metro Council for showing "great leadership in initiating and passing this piece of legislation."
Here is the text of Sanders’ letter to Harwell:
An Open Letter to Speaker of the House Beth Harwell
Dear Speaker Harwell:
Your election as speaker was greeted with a mixture of pride and relief by many around the State. Let’s be completely honest. The relief was that Rep. Glen Casada didn’t win. I don’t want to come across as cruel about that, and I certainly don’t want to appear crueler than legislators who file bills that take away the rights of cities and counties to protect their citizens from job discrimination, but it is what it is.
I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The pride many people felt when you were elected speaker was not only that you were the first woman to occupy the chair. It was also because of your considerable experience, intellect, and reputation for fair dealing with people. So the realization hit us: Not only did we not get Glen Casada, but we actually got Beth Harwell as speaker. Or we thought so, at least.
Your April 7 comments in The City Paper about HB0600, the state legislation that would undo Metro’s new nondiscrimination ordinance, are making people wonder what the difference is. I don’t believe someone with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt thinks that a nondiscrimination law is a “burden” for businesses, except businesses that revel in discrimination. If it’s such a burden, then why does Rep. Casada’s own employer, Schering-Plough, forbid job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just like Metro government is trying to do, and just like so many workplaces in Tennessee already do?
And when you said in the same City Paper piece that there were enough votes to pass HB0600 and that yours would be one of them, I have to apologize for my first thought that you sounded more like a follower and not a leader. My second thought wasn’t much more charitable as I wondered how you could do that to your own city. But these are admittedly the initial reactions of someone personally invested in the issue. So it occurs to me that I need to do a better job of explaining what’s at stake.
The people’s representatives in the Metro Council decided that our tax dollars should not fund job discrimination when it comes to vendors who make a choice to bid on Metro contracts. I don’t understand how you can view that as a “mandate” on businesses. I know you have to pick your battles, but you don’t have to repeat Rep. Casada’s talking points. Getting a Metro contract on terms mutually agreed upon by two parties is how government procurement works. If a business doesn’t like the terms, it is free to walk away. But experience across the country shows that the vast majority of businesses adapt without any problem.
Perhaps your statements will salvage your party’s relationship with the extreme religious right, but I wonder whether they’ll ever be satisfied until they push you completely against the wall. It’s presumptuous for someone with my limited government experience to advise you, but I would urge you to count the cost before you make your final decision on HB0600. Your place in history might be compromised by publicly enabling people who are trying to undo gains for equal rights in Tennessee. Please, don’t abandon your leadership role, your wisdom, your neighbors, and your constituents.
Chair, Tennessee Equality Project Nashville Committee