School transgender policy defense bill clears first hurdle in Tennessee House

A new sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle. Bathrooms for transgender students have become political footballs again. (AP file photo/Elaine Thompson)

NASHVILLE - A bill directing the Tennessee attorney general in most instances to either defend or else approve funds for private attorneys to represent schools sued over their transgender policies cleared its first full House committee Tuesday.

The Republican-controlled Civil Justice Committee approved the measure on a 7-4 vote after considerable discussion on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden.

Holt said his bill is to "offer protection to students from experiencing members of the opposite sex" using the same school bathrooms, locker rooms and showers as they do.

"Biological differences are real and they are objective and it is not discriminatory," Holt told committee members.

The bill is opposed by Gov. Bill Haslam on philosophical grounds. One version was originally sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who later dropped the measure, with Holt picking it up.

Holt said the bill would authorize the state attorney general to defend local education agencies that implemented policies on transgender students' use of restrooms, locker facilities and showers.

If the state's top attorney refused, it would require his office and state taxpayers to foot the bill for a system's use of private attorneys provided the policies were not willful, malicious or criminal acts or done for personal gain.

The Tennessee Equality Project and ACLU-Tennessee later condemned the measure with state ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg saying the bill "encourages school districts to discriminate against transgender students and then allows the State Attorney General to use taxpayer dollars to defend these discriminatory practices."

During committee discussion, several Republicans appeared to struggle with the bill and sought to find ways for the Tennessee Department of Education to develop either a legally sound single-model policy or several models on which local systems may rely.

"I just wonder if the state of Tennessee would be on the hook if [potential policies were] poorly contrived," said Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, a retired school principal.

Holt said each school district will know best how to meet local needs, as well as their ability to pay for them.

But state Department of Education officials said they would never advise districts on a single "blanket policy" and noted every county is different, as are individual schools. While the state may provide "guidance" on positions, districts' actual legal advice has to come from their own attorneys, they said.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, an attorney, said he didn't want a uniform policy and suggested some type of opt-in provision for systems.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville warned panel Republicans that it's estimated the state of North Carolina will lose nearly $4 billion in business after lawmakers there enacted a 2016 "bathroom bill."

Carter joined the majority of Republicans in voting for the bill, which now goes to the House Finance Committee. Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, is carrying the Senate companion bill.

Tennessee social conservatives sought unsuccessfully in 2016 and 2017 to pass bills requiring students in public schools to use the bathroom corresponding with the sex listed on their birth certificate.

The 2018 effort to give local systems state-funded legal cover came from David Fowler, a former Republican state senator and executive director of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a socially conservative advocacy organization.

In other legislative action Tuesday, a Democratic lawmaker whose effort to ban most underage marriages in Tennessee reached the Senate floor only to be shipped back by Republican senators to committee earlier this month saw his bill sideswiped by a competing measure in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As amended earlier this month on the Senate floor before getting re-referred to the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro's bill would have barred marriages for anyone under the age of 17. Those between 17 and 18 would have to have approval of a judge.

But on Tuesday, State and Local Committee Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, and fellow Republicans amended another Yager bill. It would allow minors ages 16 and 17 to continue to get married, provided they have parental permission.

While current law sets the age of consent at 18, it also allows underage children to marry provided they have approval from their parents, judge or a county mayor. That, Yarbro and others argue, has resulted in children in their early teens, mostly girls, winding up in marriages, sometimes to men decades older, with virtually no legal protections.

As Yarbro's bill came up for a re-hearing, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, offered the same amendment used previously on the Yager bill.

Yarbro raised concerns, saying it would still allow parents to consent to their child being married to someone convicted of sex offenses, a background of domestic violence or under an outstanding order. He related a national story about a Texas underage teen who was "sold" to an older man by her parents.

After the committee inserted the Yager amendment into Yarbro's bill, the Democrat said he was willing to let the measure go forward, evidently hoping to alter it further in the process. But the amended bill then failed, with Republicans who voted to put the Yager amendment on either voting no or passing.

Yager, meanwhile, issued a news release stating that "child marriage is a barbaric practice that has no place in Tennessee. All members in both chambers agree. This bill ends the practice while allowing certain young adults between the age of 16 and 18 to get married with parental permission."

Also Tuesday, many think it's an idea whose time has come, but a legislative effort that would have kept Tennessee on daylight-saving time year round has been postponed until next year.

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, the bill's sponsor, asked for his bill to go to summer study, saying the effort was complicated with Tennessee bordered by eight other states.

"Obviously [there's] a lot of public support," Dickerson told State and Local Government Committee members, "but I don't know that it's quite ready to pass this year."

Noting that Florida recently approved extending daylight-saving time year round, Dickerson told Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, "our hope is that between now and the next General Assembly, the federal government will take this up."

Dickerson called the proposal "wildly popular" in polling.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.