NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office warned lawmakers that their far-reaching law limiting COVID-19 restrictions would violate …
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office warned lawmakers that their far-reaching law limiting COVID-19 restrictions would violate federal law that protects people with disabilities and put the state at risk of losing federal funds, according to records obtained by the Associated Press.
The Republican-controlled legislature ignored the council and passed the bill anyway. Less than two weeks later, the Republican governor signed it into law.
Lee, who is up for re-election next year, has since said there are still “some issues we need to work through.” He has publicly mentioned concerns about how the law changes the hospital visitation rules and what it could mean for the state’s ability to control its own workplace regulation going forward. But the governor has not publicly expressed concern about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Privately, his legislative advisers explicitly warned lawmakers the night the bill was passed that they were in violation of federal law. The warning came in an email from Legislative Adviser Liz Alvey at 6 p.m. 12:44 a.m. Oct. 30 to McNally’s Chief of Staff Rick Nicholson and Luke Gustafson in Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson’s office. The email referred to a previous effort by the governor’s office to mark the same issue.
“The proposed ADA accommodation in the bill is a violation of the ADA and will put us at risk of losing federal funding,” Alvey warned when a flurry of last-minute changes was discussed and added.
The final bill was approved about an hour later that morning.
It is not clear when or if she gave the legal advice to the governor, who receives more legal advice from his team before deciding whether or not to sign the legislation. Lee’s office did not address this issue directly in its comments.
“The governor noted that there were things that needed to be fixed in the next session and we will work with lawmakers,” Lee’s spokesman Casey Black replied in an email when asked why Lee passed the law, referring to the e -mail in which his lawyer had warned that it would violate federal law. “Overall, the bill is a response to the federal government’s great overrun.”
The law was almost immediately challenged in a federal court, where families of young students with disabilities argued that their children risk serious harm when schools are not allowed to wear masks, when people gather indoors, where the chances of infection are much greater.
U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, who oversees the legal battle, has since halted the ban on school mask mandates from being implemented and has specifically instructed state attorneys in explaining how the new law complies with the ADA.
Crenshaw is scheduled to hear evidence in the case Friday morning. State Attorney Herbert Slatery’s office, representing Lee and his education commissioner, is now tasked with defending the way the law accommodates students with disabilities.
Republican lawmakers, who called the three-day sprint session against COVID-19 mandates after the governor refused to do so, praised the final product despite objections from prominent business interests, school leaders and others.
Senate President Randy McNally’s office expressed no concerns about how the law caters to people with disabilities, downplaying the legal concerns raised by the governor’s office.
McNally “does not agree with this particular objection and supports the law that the governor signed,” said his spokesman, Adam Kleinheider.
By law, families can request accommodation for their children with disabilities in order to have “a personal educational environment where other persons can place or otherwise locate themselves within six feet (6 ′) of the person receiving the reasonable accommodation for longer than fifteen (15) minutes wears a face covering provided by the school. ”
“The legislature obviously ignored whether the law they passed would actually pass legal patterning,” Jeff Yarbro, leader of the Democratic Senate, told the AP. “And it’s shocking to me that the governor would sign this bill into law, knowing that significant parts of it are illegal.”
When the state passed the new law, it was already under court rulings blocking a policy by the governor to loosen school mask mandates. That ordinance was amended when three federal judges decided to block the possibility of opting out of the parental mask for students in three counties who sided with disabled children who sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lee let the opt-out order expire when he signed the new law.
Crenshaw’s decision against the new law’s limits on school masks sparked praise from public health advocates, but drew strong condemnation from some Republicans, who called for measures to block state laws restricting school mask mandates from “legal transgression.”
“The legislation allows parents to choose whether or not their children wear a mask, while accommodating those with special needs,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said in a statement on Crenshaw’s decision.
The new Tennessee law largely excludes governments and businesses from requiring evidence of COVID-19 vaccinations and leaves schools and other public entities only requiring masks in rare, serious public health situations. Exceptions are also allowed if groups can show they would lose federal funding by complying with state law, which conflicts with policies implemented by President Joe Biden’s administration.
Masks are an important virus prevention tool that is most effective when worn by a large number of people, say public health experts. The CDC has again recommended them for enclosed public spaces, including schools, and says they do not pose health risks to children older than toddlers.
Before making Alvey her top legal adviser, Lee worked with the Tennessee Senate since 1999, where she was the former Majority Leader’s senior policy adviser and held leadership positions in the Southern Legislative Conference and Council of State Governments.
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