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Tennessee Chamber Joins Local Anti-Gay Organization To Lobby Against LGBT Rights

May 23, 2011 4:26 pm ET by Kate Conway

Tennessee State Capitol

With the tide of public opinion turning rapidly in favor of equal rights for LGBT Americans, a number of states and municipalities are getting with the times by adding protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the books. In Nashville, Tennessee, a local ordinance passed in early April amends city codes such that companies seeking to do business with the Nashville Metro Council would have to update their employment non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity categories.

But the ordinance didn't stand for long before the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the anti-gay Family Action Council of Tennessee — a local affiliate of the Family Research Council — to fight against equal rights for all Americans. Apparently the Tennessee Chamber thinks that not discriminating against gay people is somehow an "additional burden" on businesses trying to employ people "based on their individual qualifications and merit." Here's their statement defending their involvement:

Our support of HB 600/SB 632 is related solely to the issue of whether local governments should be able to enact laws that set employment law standards higher than, or different from, those at the federal and state levels. Our position is now, and has historically been, that employment standards from the government should be consistent across the state and not create an additional burden on companies that are endeavoring to be competitive and provide jobs to all Tennesseans based on their individual qualifications and merit.

After aggressive lobbying, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill — now on Governor Bill Haslam's (R) desk — overruling the Nashville measure and prohibiting any local Tennessee municipality from enacting anti-discrimination laws of a higher standard than those in state law. Perversely, the measure that effectively overturns Nashville's attempt to grant LBGT people equal access to employment is called the "Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act."

Tennessee Republicans, along with the Chamber, justify the bill by insisting it's motivated by a desire to protect Tennessee's businesses and economy. "When we get into a situation where various counties and various municipalities have different policies with regards to discrimination, I think we start down a very slippery slope," Republican State Sen. Jack Johnson said. But AmericaBlog's John Aravosis isn't buying it — probably because a law that goes out of its way to prohibit progressive protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans is transparently discriminatory.

And don't for a minute buy the chamber's excuse that this is about business, not prejudice.  Every other minority is protected in the state under federal law.  Gays and trans are not.  The law was the idea of the religious right.  The lead lobbyist on the law was the religious right.  The only victim of the law was the LGBT community.  This law was specifically written and intended to repeal Nashville's new civil rights ordinance protecting gay and trans citizens, period.

Nashville Councilman Jamie Hollin agrees, calling the state bill "nothing more than homophobia hidden behind a red herring argument of protecting business."

In perhaps the strongest evidence that the pro-business argument is bunk, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board member Alcoa has issued a statement explicitly calling on Governor Haslam to veto the bill.