Gov. Lee signs COVID bill despite staff lawyer warning it could violate federal law

Tennessee Politics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Members of Governor Bill Lee’s staff warned the far-reaching bill limiting COVID-19 restrictions violates a federal law that protects people with disabilities. Despite that warning from legal aides, Lee still signed the law.

The advice was all but ignored when a lawyer from Lee’s office warned the GOP-controlled legislature that proposed restrictive covid legislation is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, According to a letter obtained by the Associated Press.

“I signed a bill that I thought was best for Tennessee,” Lee said.

Despite the concern, Lee signed the bill anyway.

“What we all know is that there are in the process of bills being created by the legislature our team will talk to their team about challenges or issues we believe might exist,” Lee said in response to questions.

Lee has already faced losing feats in trying to convince courts the law doesn’t negatively impact those with disabilities, adding he plans to revisit the law in January. “We’ll clean up what needs to be cleaned up in the regular session,” he said.

The possible violation of federal law could cost the state money.

“The law that passed is one that probably won’t pass muster in federal court with the Americans with Disabilities Act and it’s just really a shame,” Carol Westlake, Executive Director of the Tennessee Disabilities Coalition said.

The Tennessee Disability Coalition also warned of the effects of the COVID laws writing to the Tennessee governor:

“The ADA requires that schools make “reasonable modifications” to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to goods and services provided in public entities, such as schools.“

“There are ways that we provide for children with disabilities both from a masking standpoint and within this piece of legislation,” Lee said.

Under the law, signed by the governor, parents with children with disabilities can request specific accommodations outlined in the law. Something disability advocates say undermines a number of federal laws. “You’re really creating this completely separated segregated education for a child in violation of all manners civil rights laws, special education, the ADA we sort of settle that with Brown vs. Board of Education a really long time ago.”

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Under SB 9014 the COVID omnibus bill restrictions law:

The principal or president of the school shall evaluate the request on behalf of the school and, to the extent practicable, provide a reasonable accommodation. The principal or president shall issue a decision approving or denying the request in writing. If the principal or president denies the request, then the grounds for denial must be provided in the principal’s or president’s written decision. If the principal or president approves the request, then the school shall place the person in an in-person educational setting in which other persons who may place or otherwise locate themselves within six feet (6′) of the person receiving the reasonable accommodation for longer than fifteen (15) minutes are wearing a face-covering provided by the school.

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