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Bill allowing stores to reject customers on religious grounds debated

Gerald Witt, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:58 PM

(MCT) – State Rep. Bill Dunn says that a bill proposal he sponsors would ensure religious freedom and shield Tennessee businesses from some lawsuits.

Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles warned that the law, if passed, would discriminate against homosexuals and hurt commerce.

"A business is owned by a human being, and that human being has the constitutional right of freedom of religion," Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, said. "In the end, it's a human being that's being sued."

Dunn said that the bill's initial sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, named it the bill "The Religious Freedom Act."

If a business owner doesn't wish to do business with someone -- particularly in the case of a marriage or civil union not recognized by Tennessee -- then that business would be protected from lawsuits under the proposal.

"We're trying to prevent people from getting sued and put out of business," Dunn said.

Broyles, a Democrat, said that the law is a backlash against homosexuals, transgenders and others who have received more civil liberties and recognition in recent years. She called the proposal a "wedge issue."

"I hope that our state legislators will recognize that, whatever their feelings are on gay, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders," Broyles said, "they recognize how bad for business this is, and it won't go anywhere."

A news release from the Tennessee Senate Republican caucus said, "The Religious Freedom Act will protect Tennesseans from being dragged into court for their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage." It referenced a New Mexico case in which "a photographer was recently sued for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, even though such ceremonies were not recognized by New Mexico law at the time."

Dunn said that 11 other states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar legislation and that the bill is not intended to target any particular community of individuals.

"When they say that, 'Oh, Tennessee is backwards'," Dunn said, "then I guess Washington, D.C., is backwards."

Dunn said that the bill will go before the state Senate next week and adjustments to the language should be expected. Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is now the Senate sponsor.

"There will be amendments to narrow it down and be very specific in what it does," he said.

Broyles said that she doesn't understand why a business would want to turn customers away.

She said that protections and rights for gay marriage, civil unions and other types of partnerships are going to gain more acceptance in government and business.

"We saw this throughout the South during desegregation," she said. "Whenever there's a period of progressive expansion, there is some pushback."

News Sentinel staff writer Tom Humphrey contributed to this report.

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