NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee
Gov. Bill Lee
has signed legislation putting public schools and districts at risk of civil lawsuits if they allow transgender students or employees to use multi-person bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their gender at birth.
According to Wyatt Ronan, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the legislation is discriminatory, and it is the first bill restricting transgender people
's bathroom use to be signed in any state in about five years.
The bill was signed into law by Tennessee's Republican governor
on Friday, making it the state's second anti-transgender policy this year. Several anti-transgender bills have recently advanced in Republican-led statehouses across the country, including Texas
, Alabama, and Arkansas.
Under the bathroom measure, a student, parent, or employee may sue for monetary damages “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if school officials allow a transgender person into the bathroom or locker room while others are present, and they may also sue if they are required to share sleeping quarters with a member of the opposite sex at birth.
According to the proposal, if a student or employee "desires greater privacy when using a multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility" designated for their sex at birth, schools must make an effort to provide a single-occupancy or employee-only bathroom or changing facility.
Despite the prohibition on transgender people using multi-person facilities that do not align with their sex at birth, Lee, who is running for reelection next year, has stated that the bill promotes "equality in bathrooms."
“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 gender, and I think that’s a smart approach to the challenge.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the requirement would violate equal protection rights under the Constitution and the Civil Rights
Act, and the law is likely to be challenged in court.
“Transgender students should be treated with respect and dignity, just like everyone else,” said ACLU
of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg 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 prejudged,” she added.
According to state ACLU spokesperson Lindsay Kee, challenging a school policy currently involves procedural hurdles such as legal standing and immunity issues. The law provides a "clear path to litigation" about bathrooms and allows for attorneys' fees awards.
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. Unlike the swift backlash from the bus ban, there has been no major, tangible repercussion where bills targeting transgender people have passed.
This year, the governor has already signed a bill prohibiting transgender athletes
from participating in girls' public high school or middle school sports
The NCAA recently chose three states — Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas — that prohibit interscholastic transgender athletes as host schools for softball regionals, with Arkansas’ law also applying to college sports, as host schools for softball regionals. The decision came after the NCAA reiterated its support for transgender athletes in college sports, warning that future events should only be held in places that are “safe, healthy, and free of discrimination.”
Lee has also signed legislation requiring school districts to notify parents 30 days before teaching students about sexual orientation or gender identity
, with the option to opt their child out of the lesson. The requirement would not apply when a teacher is responding to a student's question or referring to a historical figure or group.
Lee is still debating whether to sign a different type of “bathroom bill” that passed this year, which would require businesses or government facilities open to the public to post a sign if they allow transgender people to use multi-person bathrooms, locker rooms, or changing rooms with people of their gender identity, not just their birth gender.
Another bill passed by lawmakers seeks to prohibit gender-affirming medical treatment for trans minors, including the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Lee has yet to act on the legislation, but Arkansas approved a similar version earlier this year despite Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto.
This article was contributed to by Associated Press writer
Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee.