TEP denounces State Representative's attempt to get county clerks to ignore Supreme Court marriage ruling

Today it was reported that Rep. Rick Womick has sent a message to county clerks urging them to ignore the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Supreme Court ruling overturning the state ban on same-sex marriage.

The Representative's comments, if acted upon, could temporarily deprive people of their right to marry and would result in substantial legal expenses for county governments who would surely lose if challenged in federal district court.  Taxpayers would pick up the bill.

It's time to move forward, not back to the years of couples lacking basic protections for their relationships.  The Supreme Court has ruled.  We need to look at ways of living and working together with our neighbors of all sexual orientations and gender identities for a stronger Tennessee.

*The Representative's statements are another reminder that we will face a tough legislative session when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes.  We call on the LGBT community and allies across the state to get involved at this link and prepare a strong defense. 

Summer of Love Letter 4: Allies come out in Dickson

While it's important to remind the public that LGBT people are everywhere, allies are, too.  And they certainly came out in force in Dickson today at our latest Summer of Love tour stop. 

Of the 15 adults present, 12 were allies.  Some brought their children.  I tried not to let it show, but it was emotional for me because it was yet another reminder that we're not alone in the struggle for full equality in Tennessee.  The more we reach out, the more I think we'll find a welcoming hand.

Resources for youth:  We spent a lot of time talking about how allies can help.  And as we discussed the problem of LGBT young adults being kicked out of their homes by families that refuse to accept them, it became clear that we could identify homes where they could stay.  And it occurred to me that if we had the time, we could probably do that in every county in Tennessee.  Imagine that!  A network for rejected rural LGBT youth. 

Safe spaces:  We also talked about safe after-school spaces for teens and identified programs that might be a fit.  And when we talked about Tennessee Open For Business, which is really a safe space program for LGBT people seeking to work or do business, the group lit up.  They took program window clings and began rattling off the names of businesses that might participate.

Tennessee Equality Project is grateful to Bob Kucher and Pacer Harp for hosting the event and we are pleased that group is planning to meet next month.  We think that they will bring lasting change to the Dickson area. 

What does the new EEOC ruling on sexual orientation mean?

The news broke today that the EEOC has ruled that job discrimination based on sexual orientation is already illegal because it is a form of sex discrimination, which is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  The Commission had already decided that gender identity discrimination is sex discrimination and, therefore, illegal a few years ago.

The rulings are both historic and, I think, the real beginning of the end of job discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  But I have some questions and maybe you do, too.

1.  Is this the final word on the subject?  Probably not.  The link above is to a Washington Post piece by Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.  In it, he notes:

"The interesting question now is how many circuit courts will go along with the EEOC’s new interpretation of Title VII. The EEOC’s views on the scope of Title VII are considered persuasive, but not binding, authority on the courts. The next president could appoint commission members who feel differently about the meaning of Title VII, and they could reverse this divided opinion.  Either way, a circuit split on the issue could be resolved by the Supreme Court in the next few years."

So it will take court challenges to make the ruling stick in the various federal districts and circuits around the country.  A conflict among the circuits could get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court where we will likely get the final word.

2.  Should we stop trying to change federal, state and local law?  No, if we can find ways to advance explicit protections from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, we should pursue them.  In fact, the ruling may give new life to such efforts.  It is still a good idea to pursue the Chattanooga non-discrimination ordinance, for example.  It's good for each employer to have clear protections so that LGBT employees don't have sue in order to get them.

3.  Should I talk to HR about changing the employee handbook?  Maybe.  If you have a relationship of open communication with your human resources representative, it might be worth having the conversation.  Many HR professionals will read about the EEOC ruling in trade publications over the coming weeks and may initiate changes internally. 

4.  Does the ruling apply to all employers?  It does appear that it will apply to most commercial (for profit) employers and to state and local governments.  Smaller employers may not be affected and many religiously affiliated employers will not be affected or not affected in exactly the same way that public and commercial employers will.  There is ongoing debate in the legal community about how Title VII applies to religious employers such as religiously affiliated schools.  When in doubt, consult an attorney.

5.  What can I do if I believe I have been discriminated against on the job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity?  You can consult an attorney with the real possibility that your case will move forward.  It may not be quick or easy, but these two EEOC rulings should now give you a much firmer footing for proceeding with your complaint.  You can also contact the closest EEOC field office at this link


POWER Teams: How you can fight back against discriminatory legislation

The backlash against the Supreme Court's marriage ruling is coming sooner or later.  There has been talk of a special session.  While we may avoid that fate, it's still coming.  Whether now or in January, it will be one of the toughest legislative sessions in years.  There will be bills purporting to protect pastors, businesses, and elected officials from having to deal with our community.  In other words, POWERTeam.pngwe will face a storm of hatred and discrimination and we will have to fight like never before.

We are setting up POWER Teams across the state.  Sign up now and we'll set up training sessions starting in late September that run throughout the fall.  You'll learn about legislation, working with the media, rallying support, social media campaigns, and communicating with legislators.  Those who attend the two-part training sessions will gain advocacy skills and a POWER Team shirt.

We need you.  Sign up for the POWER Team near you at the link.

New Tennessee Open For Business members

David Payne, who coordinates Tennessee Open For Business in the Knoxville area, reports the following new members of the program:

"Bring It” Food Hub, Memphis
Chattanooga Wedding Officiants, Chattanooga
Darron Kidwell, Edward Jones Investments, Knoxville
Sapphire: A Modern Bar and Restaurant, Knoxville
The Hill, Knoxville
Lee Law Group, Johnson City
Movement Arts Collective, Red Bank, TN
Greene Skirts, Chattanooga
RFC Co, dba Johnstone Supply, Knoxville.

Tennessee Equality Project is pleased to welcome them all.  If your company would like to join free of charge, it's easy at this link.

Q and A on the Chattanooga Non-Discrimination Ordinance

Question:  Aren't LGBT people already protected by federal and/or state law?

Answer:  No, the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" are not found in federal employment law.  Look up the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act, and you will not find those words included in the text. 

Question:  How does the proposed ordinance apply to the private sector?

Answer:  It doesn't, except that passage will show Chattanooga is a welcoming city and that will attract even more talented people to the area.  The ordinance itself only covers city government jobs.

Question:  Have other local governments in Tennessee passed similar ordinances?

Answer:  Yes.  Metro Nashville, the City of Knoxville, the City of Memphis, and Knox County have passed similar ordinances.

Question:  What about restrooms?  Won't people feel uncomfortable?

Answer:  The key issue with restrooms is safety.  This year OSHA has started to recommend that employers allow people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.  A transgender woman, for example, faces the risk of being attacked in a men's restroom and that is an unacceptable risk.  Transgender people enter the restroom that matches their gender identity in order to be safe and use the restroom, not harass others. 

Question:  Where can I find the text of the proposed ordinance.

Answer:  You can find it at this link.

Some real talk on what's next in Tennessee

There's a lot of talk in the national media about what's next.  Some of it seems spot on.  Some of it feels far away from Tennessee.  Here are some items to provide a sense of what's next in Tennessee.

1.  Finishing the job on marriage equality in Tennessee.  The Supreme Court ruling was the end of one process and the beginning of another.  It struck down state bans on marriage by same-sex couples, but it didn't guarantee quick implementation, as we saw in many states.  TEP marriage sentinels worked hard to monitor the compliance of county clerks around the state and, with the Decatur County situation resolved, we're at 100%.  DMV compliance is high and fully supported at Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security headquarters.  State government and University of Tennessee system employees are getting equal benefits and Tennessee Board of Regents schools have also begun the process.  Local government employees are beginning to get notification that they are included, too.  We need to continue to monitor all these developments, but Tennessee is standing out in its implementation of the Supreme Court ruling.

2.  Avoiding a special legislative session.  The day of the marriage ruling, some members of the Tennessee House began calling for a special session in order to advance bills designed to curtail the access to and benefits of marriage for same-sex couples.  It appears we may avoid a special session, and I am proud of the work the Tennessee Equality Project policy team did in reaching out to legislative leaders, even during the holiday.  So part of "what's next" is doing all we can to avoid a rush to legislative discrimination.

3.  Negative bills will eventually come, though.  Even if we avoid a special legislative session, we can expect negative bills allegedly designed to protect pastors, businesses, and even county clerks from the marriage ruling.  It will take an incredible effort to defeat them.

4.  Local advances.  I don't see much prospect for positive state legislation when the General Assembly convenes.  But we can advance a strong and positive agenda in county and city governments.  You can check out our ideas here.  And right now there are things we can do to bring back Chattanooga's non-discrimination ordinance

5.  Comprehensive human rights protections.  We need sexual orientation and gender identity added to laws against discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, etc.  As I noted, I would not expect them at the state level.  Even at the federal level, the climb is steep.  There are steps we can take to make ourselves safer here and now, though.  We can expand the Tennessee Open For Business network, which is the best way for businesses throughout the state to show they don't discriminate.  Your business can join at this link.  And we can advance inclusive anti-bullying protections in local school districts around the state, as I mentioned in the local advocacy agenda mentioned previously.

We all know there is plenty of work to do.  It's time to use our momentum to consolidate the marriage victory, hang on through the storm of negative legislation, and make even more progress where we can.  Your contributions can help at this link.


The Battle of Chattanooga Part 3: Return of the Non-Discrimination Ordinance

In November 2013, a combination partner benefits/non-discrimination ordinance passed the Chattanooga City Council and was signed into law by Mayor Andy Berke.  In August 2014 it was repealed by a majority of the voters.  Now Councilman Chris Anderson is bringing back the non-discrimination portion of the ordinance.  It is up for first reading on July 14. 

The ordinance adds sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the city's non-discrimination policy for government employees.  Marriage equality doesn't automatically bring workplace equality and there are no federal or state protections in statute for LGBT people.  So the policy is important.  It matches what Metro Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, and Knox County have already done. 

Advocates are encouraging citizens supporting the ordinance to wear red and attend the July 7 Council meeting.  RSVP at the link.

If your Chattanooga-area business, congregation, or community organization would like to endorse equal protection for city employees, it's easy.  Just endorse it at this form or email us at chris@tnequalityproject.com and we'll add your name to a public list of endorsing organizations. 

One hardware store does not define East Tennessee

You probably saw the story about the hardware store owner in East Tennessee who put up the sign forbidding "gays" after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on marriage by same-sex couples. 

Sadly, one the results was predictable.  The whole region was painted with the broad brush of hate, even though people in East Tennessee widely reviled the store owner's actions. 

What's actually going on with businesses in East Tennessee and the movement for equality?  David Payne, a TEP volunteer, has been actively recruiting members of Tennessee Open For Business in the Region.  Here are just a few of the recent additions to the program:

Price & Associates REALTORS®, LLC
Smoky Mountain Media Group
Positively Living
Anchors Hair Company 
Bliss Home, Market Square
James Freeman Interiors
Tennessee School of Beauty 
Three Rivers Market 
L’Espace Motorcoach
Earthbound Trading
Top Shelf Express LLC
Parlour (aka Palmer Sampson Designs)
KS Absher 
The Knoxville Pearl 
Ijams Nature Center 
AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo)
La Roy’s Hair Salon
Nothing Too Fancy 
RFC Co. dba Johnstone Supply 
Chattanooga Ghost Tours
Katherine Stinnett Photography 
Sanctuary Massage and Bodywork
Amy Petulla, Attorney/Mediator

And what do members of Tennessee Open For Business pledge?  They pledge not to discriminate against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity and they pledge to serve their customers without discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Any business in Tennessee can join by filling out the form at the link

Will marriages begin immediately in Tennessee if the Supreme Court strikes down the ban?

I often get asked a great question--"Will county clerks immediately begin providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if the Supreme Court strikes down the ban?"

Maybe, but probably not.

Here's why.

First, most if not all county clerks will check with their county law director, who is probably going to be looking for guidance from the Tennessee Attorney General.  It's not clear how much time that process might take.

Second, clerks may be delayed because they need new forms from Vital Records in the Tennessee Department of Health.

Neither interpreting the opinion nor creating and sending out new forms SHOULD take long, but state government doesn't always work on our timetable.  It may take hours or days. 

The other issue to consider is that Supreme Court rulings often take effect 25 days later.  We don't know whether the situation will be different with this opinion.

So we're going to be ready for immediate marriages or the delays.  If the delays drag on at the state level or with individual county clerks, we will work with our partners at the ACLU-TN and other local attorneys to break through the logjam.

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