As I mentioned in the previous post, Jeff Woods of the City Paper has conducted one of the most important interviews on equality in our state's history--a lengthy conservation with Governor Bill Haslam that includes lots of follow up. If you think that's an exaggeration, do you recall any reporter getting a previous governor of Tennessee on the record on this topic at such length?
Jeff Woods's relentless pressure exposes the lack of real public justification for job discrimination and HB600, the new law that protects such discrimination. I want to underline that word "public." By it, I mean, what can be articulated in some kind of justifying way to the whole citizenry of the state. I would contrast that with private and communal sorts of justifications. The private kind is what bigots say to themselves when they think no one else is listening. Communal sorts of justification are often based in some (but not all) religious strictures. Base bigotry and appeals to a particular faith community's understanding won't do in the public sphere. Woods knows that, and, if you read carefully, the Governor knows that, too. He resists trying to get into Rep. Glen Casada's mindset, for example.
The Governor's approach in the interview is really three-fold:
*Marriage: For the Governor, and probably for many, the phrase "gay rights" means marriage and one can understand Haslam reaching for that issue because he knows that most Tennesseans are unfortunately opposed to marriage equality. But talking about marriage is not the same thing as talking about job discrimination, and Woods continues to pull him back to the workplace.
*Regulation: The Governor attempts to frame the discussion as one about regulation of business. The Metro ordinance that inspired HB600 was a contracting standard, not a regulation on all businesses in Davidson County. But even if it were, why is it a burden to prevent discrimination? Woods reminds the Governor where the bill came from--Family Action Council of Tennessee--and that HB600 was never about business, but the Governor seems to cling to the idea.
*Business self-interest: The Governor tries to escape the dilemmas posed by Woods's questions by making an argument that companies ought to hire the best people:
I think this. I’ve said a hundred times, I think the people who hire the best team are going to win. If you take any part of the population and say I’m not going to hire those people willfully, I don’t think that’s a really smart business plan. I think businesses should have diverse hiring practices.
We agree, but why not put it in writing? At the very least, why not put it in writing for state government employees? That doesn't affect businesses at all. What is it about sexual orientation and gender identity that really defy the Governor's ability to include those categories explicitly in the law?
Woods tries to tease the answer out of the Governor. He tries to find out, for example, whether he thinks sexual orientation is a choice. The Governor won't say and, sadly, we may never know.
But if we didn't already know it, the interview has made it blisteringly clear. There is no solid, public justification for HB600.