Transgender bathroom bill draws both ire, praise across Tennessee

Transgender bathroom bill draws both ire, praise across Tennessee

April 8th, 2016 by Andy Sher in Politics State

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, speaks at a press conference at Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Fowler spoke in favor of a bill to strip to Vanderbilt University of its police powers if it doesnt change its nondiscrimination policy for student groups. At rear are Republican Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, left, and Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Photo by Erik Schelzig

“Republican leadership could call every business that signs a letter threatening the state into their offices and tell them that every bill that their business or industry is interested in for the next year or two is dead on arrival. Period. End of the debate. You can return to your corporate headquarters now. Its the conversation every lobbyist dreads if they push legislators too hard.”
David Fowler

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The sign for a gender-neutral restroom is in the new library on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The sign for a gender-neutral restroom is in...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — The head of a conservative religious group calls it a "miracle" that a state House panel resurrected and passed a bill requiring transgender students to use school restrooms based on their birth gender.

But Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, who is marshaling support for the controversial measure, also frets Gov. Bill Haslam's administration may be trying to sabotage a bill he says "protects the privacy of students."

In an "action alert" sent to supporters Thursday, Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, praised House panel members who voted Wednesday night to haul the bill back from a summer study committee.

"Yesterday was a miracle. House Bill 2414 that protects the privacy of students in the bathrooms and locker rooms of our public schools and colleges was dead as a doornail at 3 p.m., yet at 7 p.m. passed by an 8-4 vote of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee!" Fowler wrote to followers.

Fowler warned though that someone on "one of the Finance Committees" told him Haslam's Department of Economic and Community Development "appears to be working on creating a fiscal note to the effect that protecting our children will cost the state existing businesses [that might move], future expansions or tourism revenue."

But ECD spokesman Clint Brewer said the agency "is not working on a fiscal note for this bill." He said the department has "not worked on the bill in any way" and has not contacted the Fiscal Review Committee.

Haslam is worried that if the bill becomes law, Tennessee's federal education funding could be affected.

During sometimes testy debate Wednesday, Fowler and Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Tennessee chapter, took opposing sides on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who last month sent the bill off for summer study, took Fowler to task for sending emails to members of his church questioning lawmakers' integrity.

"I believe if boys go into girls' bathroom they're not being protected," Fowler said, adding that's what could happen if the bill were sent off for study.

Noting his father was a minister, White said the world is different from what he knew growing up, and as a former school principal he wants a solution that addresses various concerns.

"I am trying to figure this out for the betterment of everyone," White said. "I'm trying to protect children — elementary especially — and I'm also trying to protect the state."

Lynn has filed an amendment she said seeks to address concerns. It's sponsored in the Senate by Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

While it would restrict boys' and girls' restrooms and locker rooms to students under the gender listed on their birth certificates, students could appeal and schools would have the opportunity to work out a solution such as a unisex bathroom or entry to a faculty restroom.

Advocates for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons, however, say that could do harm and risk bullying of transgender people by those who notice they're not using the students' bathrooms.

Similar bills have raised concerns and elicited threats of pullouts by large businesses in states like North Carolina, which have passed similar legislation or other bills targeting the LGBT community.

On Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, distributed a letter from top executives of several major corporations operating in Tennessee, among them Alcoa Inc., which have warned it would hurt recruiting of talented workers and also threatens to harm tourism and business recruitment in the Volunteer State.

In a Thursday posting, Fowler called them all "bullies." He went on to give some advice and suggested Tennessee Republican leaders, whose party here is built on a coalition of business interests along with social conservatives and others, should engage in some "hardball politics" and threats of their own.

"Republican leadership could call every business that signs a letter threatening the state into their offices and tell them that every bill that their business or industry is interested in for the next year or two is dead on arrival," Fowler wrote. "Period. End of the debate. You can return to your corporate headquarters now. It's the conversation every lobbyist dreads if they push legislators too hard."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.