Late Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law House Bill (HB) 600, which prohibits Tennessee’s local governments from imposing on employers any antidiscrimination practices or standards that vary from those in state law.
Named the Equal Access to Interstate Commerce Act, the new law makes null and void any “practice, standard, definition, or provision” previously established by local ordinance or resolution. The practical effect is the nullification of a Nashville ordinance enacted in April that requires the city’s contractors and vendors to submit affidavits affirming that they don’t discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
After the legislature took final action on HB 600 last Wednesday, opponents, including the national Human Rights Campaign, mounted pressure on the governor to veto the bill. Major Tennessee employers such as Alcoa and KPMG issued eleventh-hour statements of opposition.
And the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, which had supported the bill on grounds that “a standard regulatory environment at the state level” was preferable to “potentially conflicting local regulations,” reversed itself under pressure Monday and came out against the already-passed measure. In a statement from its executive committee, the chamber noted the issue “has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness, principles which we support.”
Haslam, who during the legislative process expressed concerns about the state telling local governments what to do, also had concerns about “local governments telling businesses what to do,” a spokesperson said.
The bill was passed by substantial majorities in both houses — 70-26 in the House and 21-8 in the Senate. Family Action of Tennessee, an organization that promotes social conservatism, actively supported the bill.
Last year, Belmont University, a private institution in Nashville that in 2008 had hosted a presidential debate, came under fire for the dismissal of a lesbian soccer coach. Amid a torrent of negative national publicity, Belmont adopted a nondiscrimination policy regarding sexual orientation, and the city of Nashville took various steps to do the same, culminating in the April ordinance that added gay and transgendered individuals to a 2009 ordinance barring employment discrimination by contractors based on race, religion, creed, color, age, or gender.