NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The sponsor of Tennessee’s new law requiring businesses and government facilities to post signs if they let transgender people use the bathrooms of their choice now says owners and officials who refuse could face up to six months in jail — a penalty that went unmentioned during legislative hearings and debate.
The question of who would do the enforcing remains murky as well.
Republican Rep. Tim Rudd, who sponsored the bathroom sign bill, said a class B misdemeanor could apply to those who won’t post the signs within 30 days of being warned they’re breaking the law. That seems to contradict what Rudd told fellow lawmakers in March. He said then that the bill version that would become law “does not provide any fines or penalties at this point.”
He has since argued that he was telling the truth because while the bill itself was silent about any penalty, it was inserted into a chapter of existing building code law that already penalizes a number of violations. This law broadly defines such violations as a class B misdemeanor for non-compliance with such things as smoke alarm requirements and air conditioning regulations. Such crimes are punishable by the jail time and a $500 maximum fine. The Chattanooga Times Free Press first reported on the criminal penalties.
The Tennessee law, approved with nearly all Republicans in both chambers in favor and almost all Democrats opposed, was signed by Gov. Bill Lee on May 17. It’s one of five new state laws this year that have drawn backlash from LGBTQ advocates, including the Human Rights Campaign, which decried the sign mandate as discriminatory and “offensive and humiliating.” The American Civil Liberties Union is recruiting businesses as possible plaintiffs in a likely lawsuit. The requirement begins July 1.
This week, Rudd said he did intend for the law to carry the criminal penalty and only “answered the question he was asked” during the committee meeting in March. When the AP asked him earlier this month about enforcement and penalties, Rudd did not mention the criminal penalties, saying district attorneys could ask a judge to force compliance and judges could seek “whatever judicial remedies the court deems appropriate” if a business won’t post the signs, or people could file civil lawsuits.
In the March committee meeting, Rudd also said there would be “no state department overseeing this right now because there is no fine” and said it would be possible “someone could press charges, then it would be up to a sheriff and a DA to investigate.”
“So all the questions I got — ‘does your bill provide any penalties?’ — well, no, it’s already in code. I wasn’t asked that question,” Rudd told The Associated Press.
Democratic Rep. Bill Beck, who asked Rudd about what penalties would exist, said he misled his fellow lawmakers.
“It was a misleading statement to the entire, full State Committee, some 20 representatives,” Beck, who opposed the bill, told the AP. “Very discouraging to pass