Tennessee nears anti-LGBTQ bill despite Amazon, Nike opposition

Tennessee nears anti-LGBTQ bill despite Amazon, Nike opposition

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a Gospel Music Association ceremony in Nashville. He plans to sign an adoption bill that the LGBTQ community and many businesses say is discriminatory.

Terry Wyatt | Getty Images

Businesses are expressing disappointment in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s plans to sign an anti-LGBTQ adoption bill into law. The bill protects businesses, adoption agencies and foster-care homes that exclude LGBTQ families and now allows them to use taxpayer dollars, and it has been opposed by major corporations since last April, when the state’s house passed the measure. It was passed by the state’s senate earlier this week.

Amazon, which plans to bring 5,000 jobs to Nashville as part of Tennessee’s largest jobs deal ever, said in a statement: “Amazon does not support this legislation. We have a long history of supporting equality and we’re opposed to laws that discriminate or encourage discrimination.”

The bill is the latest in a stream of Tennessee legislation that limits the rights of LGBTQ people and protects organizations that deny service to the LGBTQ community from legal consequences. Dubbed the “Slate of Hate” by activists, the proposals have prompted several businesses to reaffirm their opposition to anti-LGBTQ laws.

In April of last year, 11 companies signed a letter in coalition with the Human Rights Campaign denouncing Tennessee’s anti-LGBTQ legislative momentum, including Nike, Hilton, Lyft, IKEA, Marriott and several others. However, companies including Amazon contacted by CNBC did not indicate any change in plans in response to Lee’s announcement.

Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Dave Gilboa said in an email to CNBC, “Nashville is Warby Parker’s second home, and we want to see the city and state continue to thrive. We strongly urge Governor Lee to reconsider.”

A Nike spokesman said the company did not have anything to add beyond the HRC letter it signed in April. Hilton also declined to comment further.

Asurion, one of Nashville’s top 10 biggest employers, said in a statement that the bill “does not align with our company’s commitment to inclusion.” It declined to comment on potential business consequences.

GLAAD said in a statement that companies supporting LGBTQ equality should assert to Gov. Lee that these bills would be bad for business.

“LGBTQ consumers and allies support companies that support us, and GLAAD will be among organizations ready to hold companies strongly accountable for sitting idly by as LGBTQ Tennesseans are placed in harm’s way,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, in the statement. It added, “This bill further legitimizes discriminatory practices against LGBTQ people and is one of several upcoming pieces of legislation that will define Tennessee as a state where LGBTQ citizens are second-class citizens.”

FedEx, which touts a score of 90% on the HRC equality index and did not respond to a request for comment, is the largest company headquartered in Tennessee.

The HRC does not deduct points from corporations for not taking a stance on anti-LGBT issues.

Dollar General, which has more than 2,000 employees in the state, declined to comment on the bill.

One of the state’s conservative leaders has expressed opposition to the bill. Republican State Sen. Steven Dickerson of Nashville has argued that the bill would have a “direct fiscal impact on the state,” which would likely damage Nashville’s tourism industry and turn companies away from investing in the state. He also said that organizations considering Tennessee to host lucrative events such as the NFL draft, NCAA basketball playoffs and NHL events have asked for updates on the bill.

“I think we can probably kiss that goodbye,” Dickerson told The Tennessean earlier this week.

The NFL, NCAA and NHL did not respond to requests for comment.

Nashville Conventions and Visitors Corp. said in a statement that clients have already voiced their hesitation to continue doing business together once the law is in effect.

Passing a discriminatory bill the first day of the legislative session sends an ominous signal that Tennessee is not welcoming of diverse communities and not open for business.

The Tennessee Equality Project

The Tennessee Equality Project warned that the anti-LGBTQ adoption bill would tarnish Tennessee’s reputation as a hub of growing economic activity.

“Passing a discriminatory bill the first day of the legislative session sends an ominous signal that Tennessee is not welcoming of diverse communities and not open for business,” the TEP said in a statement.

Several other states, such as Texas and Michigan, have passed laws that allow for organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ people. However, Michigan reversed course in March 2019 in response to a lawsuit, prohibiting taxpayer-funded adoption agencies from excluding LGBTQ families.

Corporate CEOs have been more outspoken in recent years on many social issues, including support for the LGBTQ community, gun control and climate change. In some cases, pressure from corporations has led politicians to reconsider legislation.

In 2016, North Carolina‘s House Bill 2, or HB2, faced nationwide backlash for preventing transgender people from using public restrooms aligning with their self-identified genders. The NBA All-Star Game was relocated from Charlotte. PayPal, Deutsche Bank and CoStar Group canceled plans to develop offices and create nearly 1,400 new jobs in various North Carolina cities. Facing South estimated that HB2 overall lost North Carolina at least $560 million across several industries. The bill was partially repealed by North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence revised a 2015 state bill covering religious freedom after major employers in the state, including Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, threatened to remove business from the state.

A spokesman for Gov. Lee said critics of the bill are mischaracterizing it and stressed that it places no prohibitions on adoption.

CNBC’s Ryan Ruggiero contributed to this report.

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