As the city, the state, and the nation celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders — the courageous men and women who risked their lives to defy institutional bigotry — Gov. Bill Haslam has found a novel way to honor their legacy. On Monday, he signed into law a bill, HB600, which sends the unmistakable message that workplace discrimination is OK, as long as employers discriminate against the right people.
Perhaps Gov. Haslam got carried away with the spirit of re-enactment, and decided to give modern-day Tennesseans a taste of life under the separatist politics of the segregation era. That is the most benign spin we can put on the damage this bill does to the state. With a single stroke of his pen, Haslam has managed to set back the cause of workplace protection, send a valuable chunk of the workforce the symbolic message they are neither needed nor wanted, and smear the Volunteer State's reputation as a welcoming place to live and do business.
Haslam didn't act alone, of course. HB600, which forbids municipal governments from making their own anti-discrimination ordinances, stands as the lone shabby accomplishment of a General Assembly that has rigorously dodged the one task the state's unambitious chief executive set for it: to shore up Tennessee's lagging economy.
In place of economic revitalization, legislators have clung like ticks to a severe and regressive social agenda and palmed it off as pro-business fervor. Why, we can't let cities set their own protections for GLBT workers, they say — Smyrna will no longer be able to trade with Murfreesboro! The bill's sponsor, Rep. Glen Casada, went so far as to advance the insane notion that if cities had their own laws, mom-and-pop businesses would be forced to hire staff lawyers. The Metro law exempts small businesses, a fact seemingly lost on the bill's supporters.
It is difficult to see how either Haslam or Casada — or Speaker of the House Beth Halteman Harwell, or Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, or the many little helpers who made this shameful day possible — think HB600 will entice new business to Tennessee. Not that anyone would know it from Gov. Haslam's brief tenure, but the entertainment industry remains one of the tentpoles of the state's economy as well as a frontier loaded with growth potential. As former Reagan associate Mike Curb noted during the recent outrage over Lisa Howe's ouster from Belmont, that industry thrives on GLBT citizens — for talent, for innovation, for support, and, yes, for money.
And it's hardly the only one. Major industries lined up Monday to denounce the bill or rescind their former support, though they arrived too late to stay Haslam's pen. (A profile in courage: The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry hedged its bets by withdrawing its support after the bill had been signed.) One hopes that wasn't their intent — to be able to claim later they opposed this noxious bill while lending their tacit approval — but at least give them credit, unlike the governor, for realizing how repellent it would look when signed into law. As read, their statements in support of workplace diversity were encouraging antidotes to the jobs-at-all-costs rhetoric coming from the bill's advocates.
But portraying the bill as pro-business was only a distraction from the truth: HB600 is a thorough betrayal of the small-government platitudes its proponents advanced on the campaign trail. The same legislators who blasted the intrusion of the federal government into state affairs have ruthlessly declared their sovereignty over Tennessee's municipal governments. And they have done so not to expand the basic rights of Tennessee citizens, but to prevent a segment of the populace from knowing full protection.
All the Metro ordinance proposed, after all, was that businesses with city contracts couldn't fire GLBT workers for their sexual orientation or gender identity. It did not say employers were forced to hire workers because they're gay. It did not say employers were forbidden from firing incompetent employees who happened to be gay. It did not sanction inappropriate sexual conduct that would get a straight worker fired. It merely offered protection so that workers doing their jobs and doing them well — be they gay, lesbian or transgender — could not be fired just because their bosses found out and didn't like it.
We may never know the true animus behind the bill's blatant targeting of gay, lesbian and transgender Tennesseans. That's because reporters were barred from a meeting held in secret in January at the LifeWay building between conservative legislators and businessmen, purportedly to discuss how to combat the Metro ordinance and the supposed "homosexual agenda." (If there really were a homosexual agenda, it's safe to say this law wouldn't exist.) One has to wonder: If this truly reflected the will of Tennessee's citizens, why conduct the meeting in secret? Why wouldn't those present want their names and faces before the public, to bask in the approval of their stand against the queer threat?
It is instructive to compare this group with the Nashville business leaders who met in secret five decades ago to chart the city's course during the tumult of the civil rights era. Those men — the leaders of the group known as Watauga — saw the tide of progress coming, and they sought ways to help the city rise to meet it. The cabal who oppose the "homosexual agenda," and the legislators and governor who have now codified their distaste for gays into law, want the opposite. They want to overturn the advances of civil rights protection.
We don't want to overstate the parallels to the civil rights era. We do not see gay protesters today sicced with dogs and attacked with fire hoses, as black Americans were in the struggle for civil rights. Bigotry now is a different, subtler, more nuanced beast — breakroom whispers more than brickbats. But the message the Metro ordinance sent was that the city of Nashville does not condone it in any of its forms. And by making anti-GLBT discrimination a linchpin of Nashville's contracts with vendors, the council backed up that creed with its most effective weapon: spending power. Now the state has effectively suppressed that opposition. The new law might as well be a gag order.
Does HB600 make us ashamed to be Tennesseans? Of course not. Tennesseans have a long, proud history of making up for the crackpot whims and foibles of their lawmakers. Remember when Nashvillians rose up en masse to smack down the English Only referendum? That was the message that reverberated across the country, long after the obnoxious measure's death. Already Nashville attorney Abby Rubenfeld has discussed mounting a legal challenge to HB600. We await the resistance the bill awakens, which should stoke the enormous creative energy spurring the nation's newfound interest in Middle Tennessee — a Nashville Spring, if you will.
But if anyone should feel ashamed, it's Gov. Haslam. He could have let the bill pass into law without his signature, a gesture that would at least have allowed plausible deniability. Instead, his haste in signing the bill indicates one of two things: He's a spineless jellyfish who will rubber-stamp any social-agenda item the General Assembly's reactionary hardliners send him, no matter how toxic — or he's a dangerously slippery pol who shrewdly concealed the extent of his far-right leanings on the campaign trail.
In an interview with the Scene last year before the election, Haslam said he would not be distracted by any far-right social agenda. On Monday, asked explicitly about the discriminatory message the bill sends, Haslam responded through an intermediary that “ultimately, he felt the Metro ordinance went farther than federal law in regulating business policies.” Business policies — there’s the moral principle at stake here. Pressed the next day by reporters in Chattanooga, Haslam said, “We are not in favor of discrimination” — sounding very much like a man who swears he didn’t steal your horse, while he stands there holding the reins.
Last week, NPT-Channel 8 showed Stanley Nelson's documentary Freedom Riders. Among its more tragicomic figures was former Alabama Gov. John Patterson — recorded in archival footage for the ages on the wrong side of history, clinging to segregation, allowing white mobs to beat and maul peace-abiding civil rights protesters. Interviewed today, Patterson looks sheepish and somewhat hollow — as if he'd been at a crossroads all those years ago, and he'd had five decades to reflect on making the wrong turn.
Less than six months into his term, Gov. Bill Haslam may have already signed his legacy.