(CN) --- A restaurant and a performing arts center backed by the ACLU are challenging the constitutionality of a new Tennessee law mandating businesses post signs notifying patrons if they allow transgender people to use the bathroom facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
Set to take effect July 1, the law says failure to post the signs is a Class B misdemeanor breaching the state’s building codes. Penalties for violating the law could include a $500 fine or up to six months in prison.
But in a lawsuit filed Friday in Nashville federal court, the businesses say “government-mandated warning notice” violates their First Amendment free speech rights.
“Plaintiffs do not want to display this notice. They do not agree with this 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 19-page complaint states.
The law says if a Tennessee business allows to transgender individuals use the public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, then it must post a sign in boldface, block letters: “THIS FACILITY MAINTAINS A POLICY OF ALLOWING THE USE OF RESTROOMS BY EITHER BIOLOGICAL SEX, REGARDLESS OF THE DESIGNATION ON THE RESTROOM.”
Filed with the help of American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, Sanctuary Performing Arts, a performing arts venue in Chattanooga, and Bongo Productions, which runs a restaurant in Nashville, brought their lawsuit against Tennessee State Fire Marshall Carter Lawrence, Director of Codes Enforcement Christopher Bainbridge and two district attorneys.
A spokesperson with the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
The ACLU said the Tennessee restroom law is a first of its kind. However, it came out a legislative session where Tennessee lawmakers passed five laws affecting transgender individuals. They were a handful of the more than 100 bills introduced this year that the ACLU said are intended to target transgender individuals.
The businesses are asking the court to issue an injunction stopping the implementation of the law and then to declare the law unconstitutional because they say the signs are compelled speech.
Saying the notice could imperil the dignity and safety of transgender individuals using public restrooms, the businesses argue the sign – which includes the word “notice” printed in yellow on a red background – implies the issue is alarming enough to warrant that kind of sign.
“The Act is not rationally related to any legitimate government interest, let alone narrowly tailored to advance a compelling government interest,” the complaint said.
In a statement, Kye Sayers, owner of Sanctuary Performing Arts in Chattanooga, said the venue founded in a former church in December was established to create a safe space for intersex and transgender individuals.
“These signs undermine Sanctuary’s very mission and send the exact opposite of the welcoming message we try to convey in everything we do,” Sayers said in a statement.
Bruce Garner, spokesperson for Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, a defendant in the case, wrote in an email that the office in Chattanooga has not even thought about enforcing the law, as it goes into effect in a couple days.
“General Pinkston rarely makes blanket statements about how cases will be prosecuted because each case is so specific,” Garner wrote.
The other district attorney named as a defendant, Glenn Funk of Davidson County, did not return a request for comment. Previously, Funk, whose district includes Nashville, said his office “will not promote hate” and the law would not be enforced.
On June 17, he tweeted a graphic that included colors of the rainbow and the statement “Everyone is welcome in Nashville.”
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