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ACLU files federal lawsuit against Tennessee's bathroom sign law, saying it marginalizes transgender people

The ACLU said it is unconstitutional to force businesses to post the signs and that the law only further stigmatizes and marginalizes transgender people.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is challenging a new state law in court that would soon require businesses and government facilities to post signs if they let transgender people use the bathrooms of their choice.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday on behalf of business owners in Nashville and Chattanooga who objected to the new law, saying such signs would only stigmatize and marginalize transgender Tennesseans, and that the law violates First Amendment rights to free speech.

“Forcing businesses to display a stigmatizing message for political expedience is unconstitutional,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Furthermore, by targeting the transgender community, these government-mandated signs marginalize and endanger transgender individuals. Tennessee should be embracing and protecting all Tennesseans, not passing unconstitutional discriminatory laws.”

The ACLU is also seeking a preliminary injunction to immediately halt enforcement of the new law before it goes into effect on July 1 while the lawsuit proceeds through the federal court system.

The ACLU said it filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kye Sayers, the owner of the Sanctuary Performing Arts and Community Center in Chattanooga, and Bob Bernstein, owner of Fido restaurant in Nashville. 

It said both businesses have informal policies allowing customers to choose which restroom is appropriate for them, saying neither have ever received any complaints or concerns over their restroom policies.

“Sanctuary was founded specifically to create a safe space for transgender and intersex people and their families in a state that can be unwelcoming to LGBTQ people,” said Sayers. “I am against posting offensive signs that stigmatize and deny the existence of transgender and intersex people at our center. These signs undermine Sanctuary’s very mission and send the exact opposite of the welcoming message we try to convey in everything we do.”  

If the law goes into effect, business owners that refuse to post signs could potentially face up to six months in jail. The ACLU said the signs are required to have the word 'Notice' in yellow on a red background at the top, and text below saying, "This facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation the restroom." LGBTQ advocacy groups have decried the law as discriminatory and said the required signs are “offensive and humiliating.”

The ACLU said the law is 'flagrantly' against First Amendment rights to force business owners to display a "controversial, government-mandated point of view," saying courts have ruled that forcing business owners to display signs for the sole purpose of promoting a political viewpoint is unconstitutional.

“The bottom line is that government is not allowed to compel anti-trans speech, period,” Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said.

The law is one of several passed by lawmakers and signed by Governor Bill Lee in the previous legislative session targeting transgender Tennesseans. Lee also signed a different proposal that bans transgender athletes from playing on girls public high school or middle school sports teams.

More than 30 states in 2021 have either proposed or passed anti-transgender legislation in the past year ranging from bathroom/locker room bans to restrictions on transgender medical care.

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