Tenn. Rep. Bill Dunn is supporting a bill he says will protect businesses from lawsuits if they deny customers based on sexual orientation.
Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles warned that the law, if passed, would discriminate against homosexuals and hurt commerce. The law, Senate Bill 2566, goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 4:30 p.m. EST.
Tennessee citizens and activists from around the world have started a campaign against the bill. The Facebook page “Stop TN Senate Bill 2566 ‘Turn Away The Gays’ Bill” has more than 9,000 likes and growing. A call campaign to several senators and a #StopSB2566 Twitter campaign is being encouraged by members of the Facebook page.
Dunn said the bill proposal he sponsors would ensure religious freedom and shield Tennessee businesses from some lawsuits.
“A business is owned by a human being, and that human being has the constitutional right of freedom of religion,” Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, said. “In the end, it’s a human being that’s being sued.”
Dunn said the bill’s initial sponsor, Tenn. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, named it “The Religious Freedom Act.”
If a business owner doesn’t wish to do business with someone — particularly in the case of a marriage or civil union not recognized by Tennessee — that business would be protected from lawsuits under the proposal.
“We’re trying to prevent people from getting sued and put out of business,” Dunn said.
Broyles, a Democrat, said the law is a backlash against homosexuals, transgenders and others who have received more civil liberties and recognition in recent years. She called the proposal a “wedge issue.”
“I hope that our state legislators will recognize that, whatever their feelings are on gay, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders,” Broyles said.
“They recognize how bad for business this is, and it won’t go anywhere.”
A news release from the Tennessee Senate Republican caucus said “The Religious Freedom Act will protect Tennesseans from being dragged into court for their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
It referenced a New Mexico case in which “a photographer was recently sued for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, even though such ceremonies were not recognized by New Mexico law at the time.”
Dunn said 11 other states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar legislation and the bill is not intended to target any particular community of individuals.
“When they say that, ‘Oh, Tennessee is backwards’,” Dunn said, “then I guess Washington, D.C., is backwards.”
Adjustments to the language of the bill should be expected, he said. Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is now the Senate sponsor.
“There will be amendments to narrow it down and be very specific in what it does,” he said.
Broyles said she doesn’t understand why a business would want to turn customers away, and protections and rights for gay marriage, civil unions and other types of partnerships are going to gain more acceptance.
“We saw this throughout the South during desegregation,” she said. “Whenever there’s a period of progressive expansion, there is some pushback.”
Knoxville News Sentinel staff writer Tom Humphrey and Scripps National Desk producer Katie Leone contributed to this report.