By Lucas Johnson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some of Tennessee’s biggest employers fought against a new state law that prohibits cities and counties from creating anti-discrimination regulations stricter than the state’s even though supporters argue it protects businesses from cumbersome mandates.
The measure that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law Monday voids a Nashville ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city.
Under state law it is illegal to discriminate against a person because of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.
The Nashville ordinance went further by prohibiting companies that discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender identity from receiving city contracts. The ordinance, which only applied to businesses employing at least 15 people, didn’t apply to local governments’ hiring policies for their own workers.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor expressed concern about the state telling local governments what to do, “but he also had concerns about local governments telling businesses what to do, especially the potential burden on small businesses.”
However, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese pointed out in a recent press release that a number of businesses — including FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast — oppose the measure because they view it as discriminatory.
He noted the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce at one time favored the measure, then changed its stance.
Officials from Nissan, which has two manufacturing plants and its North American headquarters in Tennessee, issued a statement saying the company believes in a standard state regulatory environment, but shares “public concerns about this bill’s impact on diversity and inclusiveness.”
“Discrimination should have no place in the Volunteer State and the chamber’s opposition to this law sent a strong signal that corporations are on the leading edge of positive change,” Solmonese’s statement said.
“In contrast, Governor Haslam has put discrimination ahead of the state’s values and even business interests by signing this horrible legislation,” he said.
Rep. Glen Casada, one of the legislation’s sponsors, said companies against the new law should make their own policy.
“I, and the majority of legislators, just don’t want local government … telling them what to do,” said the Franklin Republican, whose district is home to the Nissan headquarters.
Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group considered the “controversial nature of the bill” but decided to support it because it believes it will protect private employers from “patchwork regulations.”
“Our view was there are states like California, Michigan and others that have really gone off on the deep end and they have all these patchwork regulations from different cities,” Brown said. “I think the principle of the bill is to protect private employers from … regulations that they don’t want to operate under.”
David Fowler, president of Family Action of Tennessee, a Christian conservative advocacy group, agreed.
“At a time when many families are struggling to find employment, the Legislature and the governor have done their part to help them by creating a better climate for job growth by preventing employers from being subjected to more and possibly inconsistent government regulation,” Fowler said in a statement.
An amendment by Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville to exclude Davidson County failed during the legislative session. She said Tuesday she was disappointed her colleagues proposed such legislation and she wished Haslam had vetoed it.
“This General Assembly had talked so much about getting government out of the lives of individuals,” she said. “And with this particular incident I think we just got right smack in the lives of individuals and their private lives. Metro has clearly said what works for them, and our state legislators saw fit just to reverse it.”
Rep. Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican and one of the legislation’s sponsors, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment about the measure becoming law.