ACLU-TN focused on a wide range of civil liberties and civil rights issues during the first year of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly. We worked closely with a range of coalition partners, legislators and ACLU-TN supporters to defend and advance fairness and freedom in our state. Below are highlights of the bills we lobbied. More information about these bills can be found at our online legislative action center, and a list of additional bills we lobbied and monitored can be found on our 2019 Legislative Watch List.
Criminal Justice Reform
PENDING: Helping wrongfully convicted people prove their innocence. SB 405/HB 873 would allow people to file a petition for post-conviction relief to present new evidence of their innocence — whether it is non-scientific evidence like the confession of the perpetrator or new-scientific evidence that invalidates old forensic testimony — whenever it becomes available. Though this bill gained some momentum during the session, it was ultimately sent back to subcommittees in both chambers. We will support it again when it returns next session.
PENDING: Rebuttable presumption bail reform bill. SB 409/HB 1131 would have created a rebuttable presumption for any person charged with an expungeable offense who does not already have a criminal record of a non-expungeable crime to be released on his or her own recognizance. This legislation was deferred until January 2020.
VICTORY: Citation in lieu of arrest. SB 587/HB 715 removes unnecessary burdens on law enforcement, making it easier to issue a citation in lieu of arrest. This bill was signed into law on May 9, 2019
LOSS: Limitations on community oversight boards. SB 1407/HB 658, as introduced, sought to gut the power of the Metro Nashville Community Oversight Board, which passed with overwhelming support in November, by removing oversight boards’ authority to issue subpoenas. A conference committee made up of members of both chambers came together to resolve differences between the versions of the legislation passed by the two chambers. The final version signed into law removes community oversight boards’ power to issue subpoenas or compel witness testimony, specifying that a local legislative body can issue a subpoena on behalf of a community oversight board by majority vote. Such subpoenas cannot be blanket authorizations, nor be issued for documents that are confidential. The new law also removed certain board criteria that restricted membership based on demographics, economic status or employment history.
LOSS: School vouchers. SB 795/HB 939 is an anti-public education bill that weakens equal access to education by diverting desperately needed resources away from public schools, which accept all students, and discriminating against students from undocumented families. These vouchers also violate religious freedom by funding religious education with taxpayer money. Despite widespread opposition from across the state, lawmakers chose to put politics ahead of the needs of Tennessee students, passing an amended version of the bill that impacts only the children of the Davidson and Shelby County school systems. As of May 13, Governor Lee had not yet signed the bill and reports have surfaced that the FBI is investigating whether any improper incentives were offered to pass the bill.
Fair Treatment of Immigrants
VICTORY: Discrimination against undocumented families in housing. SB 1167/HB 614 would have prohibited landlords from renting to people who are undocumented. There was strong opposition to the bill from advocates and realtors. The measure was deferred to summer study.
VICTORY: Verification of immigration status of parents obtaining birth certificates. SB 1278/HB 662 would have required doctors, nurses and hospitals to verify parents’ immigration status when obtaining a birth certificate. This bill failed 4-3 in the House Public Health Subcommittee on April 9, after powerful testimony by hospitals and by a legislator who explained that as a doctor that he took an oath to provide services for ALL patients before he voted “NO” on this bill.
VICTORY: Turning Tennessee courts into immigration enforcement agencies. SB 1279/HB 1238, as originally amended, would have required general sessions judges to make every defendant state their citizenship and/or immigration status at the beginning of a criminal proceeding. It was subsequently amended again but continued to insert federal civil immigration issues into local criminal courts. This bill failed in the House Judiciary Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
VICTORY: The Tennessee Public Participation Act. SB 1097/HB 777 establishes legal protections for victims of SLAPP lawsuits (lawsuits intended to chill the free speech of individuals who speak out against the actions of an individual or organization) by giving them the right to petition the court to dismiss legal action when a person’s First Amendment rights are involved. The bill was signed into law on April 23, 2019.
VICTORY: LGBTQ+ business discrimination. SB 0364/HB 0563 attempts to protect businesses that have internal policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. This legislation would allow use of taxpayer funds to contract with businesses that discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees and stop local governments from giving preference to businesses that have inclusive policies. This legislation passed on the House Floor but was deferred in the Senate until 2020.
LOSS: Discrimination against trans people. The original intent of SB 1297/HB 1151 was to target transgender and intersex people for harassment and discrimination the moment they walk into certain spaces designated for specific gender use, such as restrooms or locker rooms, threatening them with criminalization. Ultimately, these bills were amended to broaden the definition of what public places are to include locker rooms and bathrooms. While still disturbing, the way this particular legislation was been amended removed the most troubling language. However, we continue to be concerned about the hateful, harassing intent of this legislation and we will monitor this law’s implementation to ensure that transgender people are not discriminated against.
VICTORY: Adoption discrimination bill. SB 1304/SB 836 would have allowed tax-payer funded agencies to discriminate against prospective foster and adoptive families based on the agency’s “religious or moral convictions or policies.” This effort to target LGBTQ families and families with religious beliefs with which an agency doesn’t agree would ultimately only make it harder for thousands of children in Tennessee’s foster system to find loving, forever families. This bill passed the House but was placed on the first calendar of 2020 in the Senate. We are prepared to mobilize our supporters against it again next year.
VICTORY: Attorney general representation for local education agencies with anti-transgender policies. SB 1499/HB 1274 would require the attorney general to represent local education agencies if they are sued for having anti-transgender policies. An amended version of this bill passed the House, but it was sent back to the State and Local Government Committee in the Senate.
VICTORY: Effective abortion ban. SB 1236/HB 77 would have prohibited abortion from the point fetal cardiac activity is detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, effectively outlawing abortion in Tennessee. The legislation passed on the House Floor but was sent to summer study by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate sponsor then attempted to recall the bill from committee directly to the Senate floor; the motion to recall it was ultimately tabled and the bill was not heard on the Senate Floor.
LOSS: The abortion-ban “trigger” bill. Like many statehouses emboldened by the new, anti-reproductive rights makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court following Justice Kennedy’s retirement, Tennessee saw a so-called “trigger” bill introduced this session, which would ban abortion in Tennessee immediately should SCOTUS overturn Roe v. Wade. The bill, SB 1257/HB 1029, passed and was signed into law by the governor on May 10, 2019.
PENDING: Restoration of voting rights to people with felony convictions. This session, ACLU-TN and our partners lobbied in support of SB 589/HB 547, which would have restored the voting rights of Tennesseans with certain felony convictions after they receive a pardon or complete their sentence, incarceration, parole or probation, and are current in child support. While it gained momentum this session, the bill was ultimately deferred to the first calendar of 2020. We will continue to fight for this legislation when it returns in 2020. In the meantime, ACLU-TN continues to advocate for the restoration of voting rights through our “Get Your Right to Vote Back” program.
LOSS: Chilling of voter registration drives. SB 971/HB 1079, as amended, would chill voter registration in Tennessee by creating a burdensome list of requirements that organizations must meet in order to hold voter registration drives and threatening them with criminal and civil penalties if they fail to do so. ACLU-TN and our allies fought hard to defeat this legislation, which would make it harder for historically disenfranchised communities to participate in our elections. Despite national outcry, Governor Lee signed it into law on May 2. ACLU-TN and our partners quickly filed a lawsuit to keep the law from being enforced. Our lawsuit is pending in federal court.