NCLR, MoFo, Abby Rubenfeld Challenge Constitutionality of Tennessee Law

Posted by Chris Geidner
June 13, 2011 2:35 PM |

Today, a group of lawyers led by Tennessee attorney and former Lambda Legal legal director Abby Rubenfeld is filing a lawsuit instate court challenging the constitutionality of a law recently passed in the state that would prohibit local municipalities and counties, including local school districts, from enacting local laws or school policies that protect LGBT people against discrimination.

rubenfeld.jpgRubenfeld will be joined by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Morrison & Foerster, an international law firm based in San Francisco, in bringing the suit.

As NCLR states in a news release announcing the challenge, "The bill was passed earlier this year, just weeks after Nashville added sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing local anti-discrimination law." The plaintiffs include Nashville Metro councilmembers, the Tennessee Equality Project, the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and Tennessee residents impacted by the new law.

Referring to Romer v. Evans, the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that will play a central role in the challenge, Rubenfeld said in the news release, "Fifteen years ago, in fact—in a case quite similar to this one—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, 'if the constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest'."

In Romer, the court, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, described local antidiscrimination laws that had been passed in several Colorado municipalities and then discribed the constitutional amendment that the court struck down:

Amendment 2 repeals these ordinances to the extent they prohibit discrimination on the basis of "homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships." ... Yet Amendment 2, in explicit terms, does more than repeal or rescind these provisions. It prohibits all legislative, executive or judicial action at any level of state or local government designed to protect the named class, a class we shall refer to as homosexual persons or gays and lesbians.

Rubenfeld and the other attorneys argue in today's complaint:

HB600, by blocking anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people at the local level, imposes a different and more burdensome political process on gay and transgender people than on non-gay and non-transgender people who have state protection against identity-based discrimination.

Read the complaint: Complaint Final.pdf

[Photo: Rubenfeld (via law firm website).]

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Tennesseans Challenge Discriminatory State Law
Councilmembers, Residents, Organizations File Suit Calling HB600 Unconstitutional

(Nashville, TN, June 13, 2011)—A group of local elected officials, individuals, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights organizations filed a lawsuit today in Davidson County Chancery Court, challenging the state’s recent passage of House Bill 600, which prohibits local municipalities and counties, including local school districts, from enacting local laws or school policies that protect gay and transgender people against discrimination. The bill was passed earlier this year, just weeks after Nashville added sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing local anti-discrimination law.  The new law also prohibits localities from protecting any other group that is not already protected under state law, which would include veterans and people with disabilities, among others. 

According to the complaint filed today: “HB600 embodies an animus toward gay and transgender people so strong that the Tennessee legislature was willing to repeal policies protecting students against bullying and harassment and to make other groups suffer as well, merely to prevent gay and transgender citizens from obtaining needed protections.”  

“This law is contrary to core Tennessee values,” said Abby R. Rubenfeld, the suit’s lead attorney. “Tennessee is the volunteer state—we help each other, we don’t single out certain Tennesseans who are deemed unworthy of help. Our legislators abused their power by preventing localities from assisting their own citizens. Rather than considering what is best for our state, they passed a law based on disapproval of gay and transgender people, which the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions do not permit.”   

“Fifteen years ago, in fact—in a case quite similar to this one—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, ‘if the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest’,” said Rubenfeld, citing Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that barred localities or the state from passing laws to prohibit discrimination against gay people.

The suit’s plaintiffs, represented by Nashville attorney Rubenfeld, the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, include:

•    Lisa Howe, the extremely successful Belmont University soccer coach who made a “mutual decision” to leave her coaching position unexpectedly and despite a highly successful career, immediately after sharing with her team that she and her same-sex partner were having a baby.

•    Metro Councilmembers Erik Cole, Erica Gilmore, and Mike Jameson, representing District 7, District 19, and District 6, respectively. Councilmembers Gilmore and Jameson were co-sponsors of BL2011-838, the Metro ordinance which extended existing anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender employees of Metro government contractors.

•    Shirit Pankowsky, a rising senior at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School (MLK) and founder and president of MLK’s Gay/Straight Alliance. By stripping Metro’s ability to protect its citizens from discrimination, HB600 also strips protections from Metro Nashville Public Schools’ LGBT students who face discrimination.

•    Dr. Marisa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and longtime advocate for gay and transgender equality at the federal, state and local level.

•    Wesley Roberts, a teacher at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School and a co-sponsor of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance.

•    The Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and sustaining the equality of gay and transgender Tennesseans.

•    The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, a statewide organization which advocates for transgender-related legislation at the federal, state and local levels.

“I want my daughter to grow up in a state that treats everyone equally,” said Lisa Howe. “This lawsuit is necessary because the legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the majority of the legislature didn’t read the bill carefully and think through its consequences. But that’s why we have the Constitution and the courts to interpret it—so that the rights of everyone can be protected.”

“The state legislation was disguised as an effort to ensure consistent business regulations across Tennessee counties. But that was a Trojan horse pretext for getting this passed. Every county has unique zoning regulations, unique employment regulations, and so forth. Why is it only now, and only on the issue of discrimination, that we suddenly need uniformity? If every county now needs to be identical, should we abolish city councils across the state?” said Metro Councilmember and suit plaintiff Mike Jameson.
 
No individual businesses went on record in support of HB600, and some of Tennessee’s largest employers, including Nissan, Alcoa, FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool and Comcast, opposed the bill. In addition, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce issued a public statement in opposition to the bill on the day it was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Under the very thin guise of protecting businesses and commerce, Tennessee passed a law specifically intended to encourage discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the community,” said Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This law is part of a larger, national strategy to attack cities and counties that attempt to protect their citizens from discrimination based on characteristics that bear no relationship to job performance, talent, or one’s ability to contribute to society.”

Plaintiffs’ claims are based on the equal protection guarantees of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. The lawsuit, which will proceed in state court, seeks injunctive relief to stop the enforcement of HB600 and an order from the Court declaring the law unconstitutional.


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