The American Civil Liberties Union’s Nashville office usually has a pretty good idea of what bills they’ll need to address before they’re introduced. The Religious Freedom Act was an exception.
Introduced shortly before last week’s filing deadline, HB2467 and SB2566 would protect business owners from having to provide goods or services to gay couples “in furtherance of a civil union, domestic partnership, or marriage not recognized by the Tennessee Constitution.”
“The bill was a last-minute drop,” ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg tells WUOT News. “We didn’t see that one coming.”
The bill’s Senate sponsor may not have seen the backlash coming either. Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) introduced the bill last Friday, claiming the Religious Freedom Act would “protect Tennesseans from being dragged into court for their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage”. GLBT groups and civil libertarians pounced, calling it the “Turn Away Gays Bill”. The heated reaction that followed became fodder for social media and yesterday, Kelsey withdrew his sponsorship. In an interview with Memphis television station WHBQ, Kelsey said the bill was getting “mixed reviews” from his constituents.
The bill is now being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) with Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) sponsoring the companion bill in the house. It’s expected to go before the state Senate next week, before a committee chaired by Kelsey. Kelsey says he’ll support it, but only if the bill is amended to be more specific. “"I think the bill should be clarified to be sure it doesn't regard every day uses of restaurants, facilities, or hospitals or anything like that," Kelsey told WHBQ.
Weinberg says the ACLU is ready this time, amendment or not. “This bill is not about religious freedom—it’s a license to discriminate, plain and simple,” Weinberg says.