Judge blocks transgender bathroom notification law in Tennessee

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction halting the implementation of a Tennessee law requiring businesses and government facilities in the state to post a sign informing the public if they will allow transgender people to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

Judge Aleta A. Trauger for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee said in her ruling that the plaintiffs were “likely to succeed on their challenge” to the law based on the argument that “the First Amendment typically does not permit such a mandate unless it is narrowly tailored to satisfy a compelling government purpose.” 

The ACLU filed the lawsuit two weeks ago on behalf of the owners of a performing arts and community center, a restaurant and other businesses in the state. The civil rights organization said that each of the businesses have “trans-inclusive restroom practices.” 

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The contested measure, which was signed into law in May by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), requires public restrooms to display a sign reading, “This facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom.” 

In seeking to prevent the law from officially taking effect July 1, the ACLU had argued in its lawsuit that one of the business owners said the signs would likely “offend” employees, as well as customers who belong to the transgender community. 

One of the businesses said it “could lose staff and customers if forced to post this sign.” 

The plaintiffs also expressed concerns that “the warning notice will make transgender and intersex people … feel that their presence is viewed as alarming, and that they will be offended by the term ‘biological sex’ because of the political controversy and anti-transgender animus surrounding that phrase.” 

In Friday’s ruling, Trauger, an appointee of former President Clinton, argued that the plaintiffs “have presented evidence that they have strived to be welcoming spaces for communities that include transgender individuals and that the signage required by the Act would disrupt the welcoming environments that they wish to provide.” 

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"Restaurants and performing spaces are businesses, but that is not all they are; they are also among the most important physical locations in which communities—so often consigned, in this era, to electronic space—can gather and grow together in a manner rooted in a particular neighborhood, in a particular city, in a particular state," the judge added. 

The ACLU praised the court’s decision, with ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg saying in a statement, “We are glad the court saw that this law is likely unconstitutional and hope that the state gives up the wasteful effort to defend discrimination and a violation of the First Amendment.”

It was not immediately clear if the defendants, which include the Tennessee state fire marshal and the director of code enforcement, plan to appeal the decision.