Tennessee government backs signing of bill his aide says violates US law
Nashville, Tenn. — The Tennessee governor on Monday stuck to his decision to sign sprawling restrictions on COVID-19 restrictions into law, even though his office warned that the bill would violate federal disability law and put the state at risk of losing federal funds.
Republican Governor Bill Lee, in his first public comments since the Associated Press revealed his legislative advisor’s email warning to lawmakers, said he believes a “balanced bill is good.” He also reiterated a promise to conduct a broad review of the new law, which he previously acknowledged includes “some of the issues we need to work through.” But when asked directly, he did not say whether he thought the law’s arrangements for people with disabilities — which his office indicated last month as violating federal law — need to change.
Instead, he said, “we have to first determine what really needs to change” before the next legislative session in January. Nor did he specify when a staff attorney told him the bill would violate federal law.
The bill that Lee signed on November 12 largely prohibits governments and companies from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccines, and allows schools and other public entities to require masks only in rare and serious public health situations — and only if Tennessee is in an emergency situation. It also grants sole authority over COVID-19 isolation to the state’s health commissioner, stripping schools of decision-making power, among other entities.
In the early hours of October 30, the night the bill was passed, Lee’s legislative advisor privately warned Senate staff that they were in conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The email, sent at 12:44 a.m., indicated an earlier attempt by the governor’s office to point to the same issue. The Associated Press obtained the email in response to a request for public records.
“The proposed ADA settlement in the bill is a violation of the ADA and would put us at risk of losing federal funding,” Lee’s legislative advisor, Liz Alvey, wrote in the email discussed and added.
On Monday, Lee noted that on some items, “we had a discussion within the governor’s office and the legislature,” saying, “This is how this process works.” His signature made the law effective immediately as written.
“We will go through the process now and then, for every part of that law, and make sure we have an agreement between the legislature and our office, about whether or not these provisions are as they should be,” he told me, referring to the 2022 legislative session. All of them and we’ll clean up what needs to be cleaned.”
Federal protections are at the center of a lawsuit by families of children with disabilities, who have so far succeeded in getting a federal judge to block the new law’s tight restrictions on COVID-19 requirements in schools — including mask mandates.
“The blatant disregard for the Americans with Disabilities Act — a law that protects the lives of nearly 1.6 million Tennessee residents — is a real punch in the gut,” said Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, after the email became public.
The plaintiffs in the suit argue that state law restrictions put Tennessee school districts at risk of losing funding for the US federal bailout by interfering with the districts’ ability to develop COVID-19 safety rules.
At Friday’s hearing, the plaintiffs’ attorney moved to enter the governor’s office email as evidence and read it out loud in court. The state objected, citing the source of the legal analysis, to which Judge Waverley Crenshaw responded: “From a source who probably knows what you’re talking about.”
In a motion Monday requesting that the email be presented as evidence, plaintiffs’ attorneys cited the AP report and wrote that the email “cuts any double talk about the bill’s impact on future funding.”
“Her email also contradicts the defendants’ official position on the cases before the court and isolates them,” they wrote.
Republican legislative leaders, who called the three-day session to take action against COVID-19 mandates after the governor refused to do so, hailed the final bill despite the objections of prominent business interests, school leaders and others.
Senate President Randy McNally, for example, “disapproves of this particular objection and supports the law the governor signed into law,” said his spokesperson, Adam Kleinheider.
By law, families can request accommodations for children with disabilities to have a “personal learning space” in which people within six feet and for more than fifteen minutes wear a school-provided face covering.
The law was passed after three federal judges ruled to prevent the option not to participate in the governor’s parental mask for students from applying in three counties. He let my withdrawal order expire when he signed the new law.
Exemptions are also allowed if groups can show they will lose federal funding by complying with state law, which conflicts with Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration policies.
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