Tennessee business owners file lawsuit calling controversial bathroom bill ‘unconstitutional’

Local News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A group of Tennessee business owners has filed a federal lawsuit against several state and local officials days before a law that would mandate bathroom signs about transgender use is set to take effect.

Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill last month that would make Tennessee the first state in the U.S. to require businesses and government facilities open to the public to post a sign if they let transgender people use multi-person bathrooms, locker rooms or changing rooms associated with their gender identity.

The lawsuit was filed June 25 in federal court by Robert Bernstein, the owner of Bongo Java and Fido in Nashville, as well as Kye Sayers, who operates Sanctuary Performing Arts and Community Cafe in Chattanooga.

Bernstein and Sayers included four defendants in their lawsuit — Carter Lawrence, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal and Christopher Bainbridge, the director of Codes Enforcement, as well as the District Attorney Generals representing Davidson and Hamilton counties, Glenn Funk and Neal Pinkston.

In the lawsuit, the businesses said they “welcome transgender customers, clients, and staff” and “allow transgender people to use the restrooms or facilities that accord with their gender identity.”

Under the new law, which takes effect in Tennessee on July 1, Bernstein and Sayers said they would be required to post “a controversial and misleading warning notice” that would advise they maintain a policy of “allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom.”

The two business owners have said they do not want to display the noticed because they do not agree with the characterization of their policies and “they do not want to convey the Tennessee General Assembly’s controversial and stigmatizing message to customers, clients, and staff.”

The law would require the businesses to put up the sign or risk being charged with a Class B misdemeanor for violating the Tennessee building code with a maximum penalty of six months in prison or $500, according to the lawsuit.

In their lawsuit, Bernstein and Sayers argue the act violates their First Amendment right against compelled speech.

Sayers said Sanctuary will begin operating a full-service cafe next month and will be “required by the local building code to post a sex designation on its two multi-user restrooms,” but will continue to allow transgender people to use the restroom that “best accords with their gender identity.”

Lawrence, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal would have the duty of enforcing the state building code, while Bainbridge, the director of Codes Enforcement would have enforcement authority over statewide building codes and standards, so both are being sued in their “official capacity,” according to the lawsuit.

Bernstein and Sayers are also suing both District Attorneys, Funk and Pinkston, because they are responsible for prosecuting all violations of the state criminal statutes occurring in the judicial district. Funk has previously said he does not plan to enforce the law.

The business owners said they want to see a preliminary injunction issued, that later becomes permanent, restraining the defendants, their employees, agents and successors in office from enforcing the law.

Bernstein and Sayers have also asked for a judgement that declares the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

This is expected to be the first of multiple lawsuits filed by entities opposed to the new law.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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