Tennessee Gov. Lee signs public school transgender 'bathroom bill' into law

Critics say the state is 'quickly becoming a national leader for anti-LGBTQ legislation'

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announces $5.4 million in grants to groups for state-funded effort to combat human trafficking on Thursday, May 13, 2021, in a state Capitol news conference. Among recipients was a foundation created by former NFL player Tim Tebow, pictured at right. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed into law a "bathroom bill" that allows public schools to be sued if officials allow transgender students, teachers and staff to use multi-person bathrooms, locker rooms or changing facilities that don't match the gender listed on their birth certificates.

The governor's action on Friday drew immediate condemnation from LGBTQ leaders who denounced him and lawmakers who passed the measure.

House Bill 1233 / Senate Bill 1367 requires schools to make "reasonable accommodations" for transgender students by providing them alternative facilities such as single-occupant or faculty restrooms.

The law specifies that the accommodations cannot include access to "a restroom or changing facility that is designated for use by members of the opposite sex." And it defines sex as "a person's immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth."

It's the first such bathroom law approved by any state since North Carolina approved in 2016 the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. That law triggered a widespread national backlash, including boycotts that eventually forced North Carolina officials to back down and revise their law.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David charged that by advancing "hateful" legislation like the school bathroom bill, Lee and his fellow Republicans in the legislature are flexing their power to "harm and further stigmatize trans youth in Tennessee." He said in his statement that Tennessee is "quickly becoming a national leader for anti-LGBTQ legislation."

"Lawmakers would rather discriminate against LGBTQ youth than focus on real problems facing Tennesseans," David said. "I want to be clear: Gov. Lee's shameful decision to sign this baseless and discriminatory bill into law will harm the health and well-being of trans students in Tennessee by creating daily degrading experiences for them at school. These 'Slate of Hate' bills are unjustifiable and must stop."

Lee had said on Tuesday in response to questions that he anticipated signing the Tennessee Accommodations for All Children Act, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and House Calendar and Rules Committee Chair Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville.

The bill "provides equal access to every student. It's a reasonable accommodation, it allows for accommodation for every student regardless of their gender," Lee said. "I think that's a smart approach to the challenge. And I'll be signing that."

Analysts with the General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee this year declined to put a cost on the bill, which some charge violates federal law, saying they couldn't peg a cost to litigation.

Asked Saturday by the Times Free Press if he and fellow GOP lawmakers had concerns Tennessee could be hurt by the law, Bell, the bill's Senate sponsor, said, "I think at some point that the people of this state and the legislature have got to decide whether we bow down to corporate people or bow down to the LGBTQ crowd. Or do what we think is best for Tennesseans."

The NCAA has indicated it may withdraw sports championship games from states with laws such as the bathroom measure, and other businesses have expressed similar concerns.

Bell said, "We still have all kinds of businesses and corporations coming to Tennessee because we're such a great place to do business in, a great place to raise families in and low taxes. So we have them coming."

He added, "They're going to have to decide whether they want to take advantage of our great business environment, beautiful state, friendly people, low taxes or if they want to go to some place that's not all those things and not have to, I guess, disagree with what the legislature thinks is doing what's best for Tennesseans."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who supported Bell's bill, said, "People that were born a certain sex ought to respect everybody else and observe the bathrooms as we have them set up. And just because somebody thinks they're something doesn't mean they are something."

He said he voted for the bill because people don't need to make other people uncomfortable or put them in an awkward position "because of your desire to be something else."

As for any repercussions for Tennessee from potential boycotts and similar actions, Gardenhire said, "Well, this is America. If somebody wants to boycott something for some reason, that's their privilege. Hopefully that's the way we are in America, if somebody doesn't agree with somebody and doesn't want to come here, well, more power to them."

Gardenhire, a retired financial consultant, said he believes for businesses "it usually comes down to the money. When it's all said and done, most everything comes down to a financial decision."

'Slate of Hate'

The transgender student bathroom measure is the third youth-related transgender bill signed into law by Lee. The Tennessee Equality Project, the Nashville LGBT and other groups have referred to all the collective LGBTQ bills as the "slate of hate."

Another bill signed by Lee is aimed at transgender student athletes competing in sporting events, requiring that students' qualifications to participate in girls' athletic events be determined by the biological sex as listed on their birth certificate.

The third measure signed by Lee, Senate Bill 1229/ House Bill 529, requires schools to provide parents or guardians of students a heads-up prior to beginning "instruction of a sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum." It also gives adults an option to opt out their children from such instruction.

Lee last week signaled last week he is also likely to sign into law Senate Bill 126 / House Bill 1027. The amended bill would prohibit a health care professional from prescribing hormone treatment to address issues for "prepubertal minors" except in cases of growth deficiencies or other diagnoses "unrelated to gender dysphoria or gender incongruency."

But Lee appeared hesitant about another restroom bill, House Bill 1182 / Senate Bill 1224, which applies to businesses as well as public entities - calling it "one of these bills" that "I haven't fully made a decision about."

It says that businesses or other entities allowing access to transgender people would be required to post post 8-inch-by-6-inch, red-and-yellow notices at the entrance of each public restroom and entrance. The signs would say, "This facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-055o. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.