Southern legislatures target LGBTQ rights

North Carolina LGBTQ rights advocates held a press conference recently to express support for a bill introduced by allies in the legislature that would ban conversion therapy. (Image is a still from this Born Perfect NC Facebook video.)

Last month members of Congress from both parties introduced the Equality Act, which would provide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in areas including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service. The bill was introduced with 287 original cosponsors, which is the most congressional support that any piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation has received upon introduction, and it comes at a time when polls show overwhelming public support for such protections.

But the situation is much different in some Southern states, where lawmakers continue to introduce bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ citizens and undermine the power of local governments to better protect them.

"Right now, more than a third of LGBTQ people in the United States call the South their home, but no Southern state has passed statewide protections from anti-LGBTQ discrimination," Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of the North Carolina-based Campaign for Southern Equality, recently told NBC News.

Legislatures in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas are currently considering measures that would weaken protections for the LGBTQ community.

In Texas, the state Senate recently passed a bill that opponents say gives the state a "license to discriminate." Senate Bill 17, introduced by Republican Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, would allow some professionals to deny services based on their beliefs. The bill would protect from penalty doctors, child care providers, counselors, and other state-licensed workers who refuse services based on "a sincerely held religious belief."

During floor debate on April 2, Republican Kel Seliger of Amarillo questioned whether a state-licensed worker should be able to deny service to a gay couple or a Muslim person. "When do you tell the difference between firmly held religious belief and bias?" he asked. Businesses including Apple, Google, and Dell have signed a letter opposing the bill, which is now being considered by the state House.

In Tennessee, lawmakers are currently considering six anti-LGBTQ bills that have been described as a "slate of hate" by LGBTQ rights advocates. Two of the proposals would allow adoption agencies to refuse services to couples for religious reasons. The others would bar state and local governments from taking action against a business for discrimination; expand criminal charges for indecent exposure in bathrooms, dressing rooms, etc.; require the attorney general to defend schools sued for requiring students to use the restroom that matches their sex at birth; and define marriage as being between one man and one woman in violation of federal court rulings.

The measures are facing widespread opposition, including from 100 religious leaders in the state. "Year after year, a small group of Tennessee lawmakers appear bound and determined to undermine the rights of LGBTQ people," said Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project.

In Florida, lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar local governments from passing new regulations on businesses and overturn local ordinances that currently impose such regulations — including those that address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. House Bill 3, sponsored by Republican Rep. Michael Grant of Port Charlotte, would block local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the Jacksonville Coalition For Equality, Florida leads the nation in nondiscrimination laws passed at the local level, with 33 counties and cities in the state offering civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill's opponents are emphasizing the economic impact the bill could have on the state, holding up the example of North Carolina's notorious House Bill 2, which also preempted local anti-discrimination ordinances and regulated which public restrooms transgender people could use. While the North Carolina legislature partially repealed H.B. 2 in 2017, the economic damage caused by the controversial law and the boycotts announced in response is ongoing. The Associated Press has estimated it will ultimately cost the state $3.76 billion over 12 years.

Meanwhile, some state lawmakers in North Carolina are taking a stand against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Last month, Democratic state lawmakers introduced three bills that would expand LGBTQ rights. One would completely repeal H.B. 2, another would ban licensed mental health professionals from providing gay conversion therapy to children, and the third would expand North Carolina's anti-discrimination laws to include gender identity and sexual orientation as well as military or veteran status.

The measures were unveiled at a March 28 news conference by sponsors of the bills and representatives from LGBTQ advocacy groups. "This historic slate of legislation is a collective effort towards making life more equitable and safe for queer North Carolinians who deserve the basic dignity of living, loving and growing without fear of prejudice or violence," said Kendra R. Johnson, executive director of Equality NC.

Though the measures are unlikely to pass under the current Republican majority, their introduction represents progress in the fight for LGBTQ equality.