- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee Republican leaders are suggesting stricter security for the Capitol complex after several dozen protesters interrupted a news conference Wednesday about transgender bathroom access.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters Thursday that the House and Senate are considering requiring people to show ID and get a name tag to enter the facility, a proposal that is drawing opposition from Democrats.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon abruptly ended their own news conference when protesters interrupted. The event dealt with the Republican lawmakers’ bathroom bill and their legislation seeking to declare marriage to be only between a man and a woman.

Beavers, who said she needed police to escort her out of the building, called the protest “despicable,” and suggested that protesters should be imprisoned.

The new security policy would essentially be the same as one lifted last year because it caused lines that often stretched around the block, particularly when advocacy groups held their days on the hill or when contentious legislation came up in committees.

“I think people having their name tags on, it’s a little bit of a deterrent to being violent or disruptive,” McNally said.

At the bathroom bill news conference, Rep. Pody had spoken for less than two minutes when a protester interrupted, saying, “My marriage is just as good as yours.” A gay couple held hands in the air. A woman’s shirt read, “You can pee next to me.”

Pody asked if they’d like him to go on. One protester replied, “I don’t care whether you do or not, frankly.” The group started chanting, “Pull the bill.”

Pody said, “I appreciate y’all coming,” and left with Beavers. The crowd shouted, “cowards” and “shame.” They followed the two lawmakers and went to their offices.

The bathroom bill would require students in public schools and public colleges and universities to use restrooms and locker rooms of the sex on their birth certificates.

On Thursday, Beavers said no one “should be allowed to come up here and act like that.”

“To try to scare our staff, for us to be escorted out of the building; read the Tennessee Constitution,” Beavers told the AP. “It says anybody that disrespects a legislator when we’re in session is to be imprisoned.”

Beavers mentioned the anti-income tax protests in the early 2000s that included demonstrators banging on the Senate chamber doors, blaring car horns around the block, breaking a governor’s office window and accosting lawmakers as they walked through hallways with police escorts.

“So, you know, it goes both ways,” Beavers said.

The state Constitution says, “Each House may punish, by imprisonment, during its session, any person not a member, who shall be guilty of disrespect to the House, by any disorderly or any contemptuous behavior in its presence.”

Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville attorney, said he interprets that to cover lawmakers while they are in session taking action, not at a news conference.

McNally appeared to agree, saying lawmakers “can’t forbid that type of activity” that happened during the news conference protest. However, if there was an effort to prevent lawmakers from leaving, McNally said that might have broken the law. Whether the protesters actually blocked lawmakers from exiting is in dispute.

“Blocking the access, like in the elevator and things like that, I think that borders on being illegal,” McNally said.

Trisha Farmer, a protester, said protesting is a matter of constitutional free speech.

“Requiring a photo ID will not keep us from protesting bad legislation,” Farmer said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said his colleagues won’t support further restrictions to get in the building.

“If our caucus has to have meetings out on the Capitol steps, we’ll do it,” Stewart said. “We’re not going to be supportive of any effort to restrict people in any way.”

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