NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed legislation that puts public schools and their districts at risk of losing civil lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use multi-person bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their sex assigned at birth.
LGBTQ advocates have decried the legislation as discriminatory. It’s the first bill restricting bathroom use by transgender people signed in any state in about five years, according to Wyatt Ronan, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.
The Republican governor signed the bill Friday, cementing another policy into law this year in Tennessee that targets the transgender community. Numerous anti-transgender measures have advanced recently in GOP-led statehouses across the country, including in Texas, Alabama and Arkansas.
Under the bathroom measure, a student, parent or employee could sue in an effort to claim monetary damages “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if school officials allow a transgender person into the bathroom or locker room when others are in there. They also could take legal action if required to stay in the same sleeping quarters as a member of the opposite sex at birth, unless that person is a family member.
The proposal says schools must try to offer a bathroom or changing facility that is single-occupancy or that is for employees if a student or employee “desires greater privacy when using a multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility” designated for their sex at birth.
Lee, who is up for reelection next year, has said the bill promotes “equality in bathrooms,” despite the prohibition against transgender people using multi-person facilities that don’t align with their sex at birth. The legislation takes effect July 1.
“That bill provides equal access to every student. It’s a reasonable accommodation,” Lee told reporters last week. “It allows for accommodation for every student regardless of their gender. I think that’s a smart approach to the challenge.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has said the requirement would violate equal protection rights under the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act. The ACLU expects the law will be challenged in court.
“Transgender students should be treated with respect and dignity, just like everyone else,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “Governor Lee’s decision to sign this bill sends the opposite message -– that students should be able to discriminate against a group of their classmates by avoiding sharing public spaces with them, and sue their schools if they are prevented from doing so.”
Challenging a school policy currently presents procedural hurdles, including legal standing and immunity issues, said state ACLU spokesperson Lindsay Kee. The law presents a “clear path to litigation” about bathrooms and allows for attorneys’ fees awards, Kee said.
Such measures have been met with opposition from LGBTQ advocates and prominent business interests. Nonetheless, it isn’t the first — and won’t be the last — proposed restriction affecting the transgender community to come before Lee this year. So far nationally, there has been no big, tangible repercussion where bills have passed targeting transgender people, unlike the swift backlash from the business community to North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill.”
The governor has already signed a different proposal this year that bars transgender athletes from playing girls public high school or middle school sports.
The NCAA recently picked three states — Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas — that ban interscholastic transgender athletes as host schools for softball regionals, with Arkansas’ law also applying to college sports. The decision came after the organization reiterated support for transgender athletes in college sports, warning that future events should only be in places that are “safe, healthy and free of discrimination.”
Lee has also signed legislation to require school districts to alert parents 30 days in advance before students are taught about sexual orientation or gender identity. Parents could also opt their student out of the lesson. The requirement would not apply when a teacher is responding to a student’s question or referring to a historic figure or group.
Lee is still deciding whether to sign a different variety of “bathroom bill” that passed this year. This one would require businesses or government facilities open to the public to post a sign if they let transgender people use multi-person bathrooms, locker rooms or changing rooms with people of their gender identity, not just their gender at birth.
Another bill passed by lawmakers seeks to ban gender-affirming medical treatment for trans minors — including the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Lee has not acted on the legislation yet. Arkansas approved a similar version earlier this year over a veto from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.