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State senator introduces new bill coined "turn the gays away"

By James Smith
On February 12, 2014

  • Members of the Tennessee Equality Project rally in Cookeville for marriage rights. photo courtesy by Tennessee Equality Project



State Senator Brian Kelsey, who represents Memphis and Germantown, has introduced a bill before Tennessee legislature that would allow businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples. 

According to the bill, no person or religious and denominational organization will be required to perform a laundry list of actions "related to the celebration of any civil union, domestic partnership, or marriage not recognized by the state, if doing so would violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the person or religious or denominational organization regarding sex and gender." 

This includes providing services, facilities, counseling, employment and employment benefits. 

"It's in the wording," President of the Tennessee Equality Project Jonathan Cole said. "By saying 'persons' it means any incorporated person or business."

The Tennessee Equality Project is working alongside Stonewall Tigers, the University of Memphis' student organization for equality, to keep Tennessee moving forward. They teamed together Wednesday night for an "Advocacy 101" meeting where they gathered to educate students about Kelsey's bill.

According to Cole, the bill has the potential to become a reality. A cake store could refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding. If a gay couple goes to a restaurant to celebrate their anniversary, they can be refused service as well.

 "We have events like Advocacy 101 to raise awareness of the dangers of this bill," Cole said. "Apartments could refuse to rent to gay couples. Even specialists and clinics could refuse services under this bill." 

According to Laitin Beecham, a Student Government Association senator, Tennessee is a welcoming state, but the bill is a smack in the face to the state's reputation. 

"We are supposed to be hospitable," Beecham said. "If travelers see this in headlines, what does that say about Tennessee? It doesn't necessarily scream hospitality."

Director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center Will Batts is concerned for the implications of this bill in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community. 

"It once again targets the LGBT community as a group that needs to be shunned," Batts said. "It's unfortunate that the bill seeks to deny neighbors access based on differences. There are better things to spend time on."

Senator Kelsey seeks to amend previous Tennessee legislation. 

"It can open the door to anything," Prataj Ingram, committee chair of Student Services and a political science major, said. "He is trying to make discrimination legal. I have found that when legislators do that, they are acting out of fear."

For Cole, the possibility of being refused services is yet another exhausting emotional experience for the LGBT community. 

"I would feel shame," Cole said. "About how I live and who I am is being disrespected publicly. Then I'd get angry." 

Priscilla Majano, sophomore child development major, said the bill makes people feel less than human. 

"I would feel like what I need doesn't matter," she said. "Like I'm worthless." 

In addition to "Advocacy 101" workshops, TEP travels to Nashville for a meeting called "Advancing Equality Day on the Hill." Members of the organization meet with legislators to voice their opinions on LGBT issues. The next trip is scheduled for March 11.  For more information on upcoming events, students can visit

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