NASHVILLE — A resolution that would direct Tennessee to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program passed Tuesday in the state Legislature.
The measure was approved in the Senate after lawmakers agreed to a change that would allow a private law firm to file a lawsuit on behalf of Tennessee if the state attorney general refuses to sue. It stipulates that the use of the private firm could not cost taxpayers.
Texas and Alabama have sued the federal government over the refugee rights program.
The resolution was sponsored by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is also speaker of the Senate.
Fears about refugee resettlement in Tennessee were heightened after last November's terrorist attacks in Paris. Lawmakers have said the state has no say in the program, but Tennessee winds up paying for the costs for the education, health and other taxpayer-funded services provided to the refugees.
Immigrant and refugee rights advocates have said the legislation makes the state look unwelcoming and sends the wrong message. They have also said the true intention of the measure was to stop or limit Muslim refugee resettlement in Tennessee.
The state constitution would allow Gov. Bill Haslam to sign, not sign or veto the joint resolution, a spokesman for the governor said in an email.
It's not clear what Haslam will do. The governor has previously raised concerns about "one branch of government ordering the attorney general what to do or the precedent that would be set by hiring an outside attorney to represent the state. And while Haslam has agreed that there are people who are coming into the country illegally who want to harm the U.S., he didn't think they were coming under the refugee program.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center has said it would take up the case for Tennessee for free, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said during debate before the measure passed.
Some Democrats have raised questions about the state using an outside law firm, and one of them asked why Tennessee would be using the Thomas More Law Center in particular.
"The executive director of this group has indicated that the FBI and military are being taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood," Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said during debate. "They have engaged in relatively extremist and certainly ideological litigation, if not extreme ideological ligation, and I think that this body should be a little bit more circumspect before we lend the name of the Tennessee General Assembly to what is at the end of the day a political and ideological agenda."
But Norris, a Republican from Collierville, disagreed.
"It may be a political or ideological agenda to the gentleman from (Nashville), but to at least a majority of us in this chamber and in the House of Representatives, it speaks to our duty to provide for the peace, safety and happiness of the people of Tennessee as required by the Tennessee Constitution," he said.
An email to a spokeswoman for the Thomas More Law Center was not immediately returned.
Norris and other Republican lawmakers questioned the Obama administration's "surge" program designed to quickly resettle refugees and wondered about the vetting process. He said the state has been seeking answers for months from the federal government about the refugee program but so far hadn't gotten any.