A controversial piece of legislation would permit businesses and organizations in Tennessee to refuse service to homosexuals based on religious beliefs.

Tennessee is one of several states that currently has a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but federal courts and some lawmakers have taken action - most recently in Virginia - to strike those bans down.

With that in mind, this bill could take it a step further in Tennessee.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, sponsors Senate Bill 2566, which would allow individuals or religious organizations to deny services, facilities, goods or privileges based on what the bill calls "sincerely-held religious beliefs."

Bottom line: cake bakers, photographers, florists or pre-marital counselors could say "no, thanks" to same-sex couples.

The bill sparked instant opposition.

"It's written so broadly that it could apply to any number of businesses. The definitions are very broad," said Chris Sanders, with the Tennessee Equality Project.

In an interview with The Tennessean, Bell said, "We want to make sure we protect the conscience and religious freedom of businesses."

But the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union calls it an overstep.

"At its worst, this is on-the-button intolerance and discrimination. At its best, it's all about fear," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. "Why can't you celebrate a loving couple who want to publicly recognize their marriage and their love?"

In response, Bell told the newspaper, "I think it's more wrong to force people to violate their conscience."

"I mean, if you're not in business to do business, then you maybe need to be doing something else, I think," Sanders said. "If there's a conscience issue, it's 'should I discriminate or not?'"

The bill originally had three sponsors, but one of them - State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown - dropped his sponsorship this week as the bill, it seems, only attracts more negative attention.

"Any time you single out a group to discriminate against, that sends the wrong message about Tennessee," Sanders said. "As Americans, we all have a stake in each other's freedom. And we should all be concerned, and we should not be surprised when there's an outcry around the country."

Bell declined comment for this story Friday because he said he plans to file an amendment next week to focus the language specifically on wedding-related issues.

The issue comes up in a committee on Tuesday.

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