Tennessee 'Turn Away the Gays' Bill Feels Heat from Memphis Chef

Bill would allow business owners to refuse service based on religious beliefs.

Feb. 17, 2014— -- A Tennessee senator is under fire from a celebrity chef and other members of his district, after sponsoring a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gays.

Critically received Memphis chef Kelly English this week offered to host a political fundraiser to unseat Sen. Brian Kelsey after reading that the Republican party member had sponsored Senate Bill 2566, which would allow individuals or religious organizations with "strong religious beliefs" to refuse goods and services that further same-sex unions in Tennessee. It is commonly being referred to as the "Turn Away the Gays" bill.

"I learned about it probably 120 seconds before I posted my reaction on Facebook," chef English told ABC News in a phone interview on Friday. The proprietor of Restaurant Iris and The Second Line is married and straight, but he considers himself a proponent of human rights.

"It's crazy to me that people can still think this way in 2014," said the chef, who feels such bills reflect poorly on the state of Tennessee and foster an impression of intolerance in the South. "Some people have reacted to my announcement saying that I spoke out when I had nothing to gain and a lot to lose, but I disagree. If there is a lack of equality, as a species we all lose."

In addition to chef English's public statement, a petition by other community members has been launched seeking to reject the bill.

"We've seen this attitude before, and it represents one of the darkest times in our Nation's history," reads the online petition. "It's time to send a simple message to our State Legislators - we, as Tennesseans across the state in rural, urban, and suburban areas, will not stand for this. We will call it what it is - bigotry."

Senator Kelsey's name has since been removed as the sponsor of the bill.

"I've heard mixed views from my constituents on this issue, and while I still believe in protecting the differing religious views of everyone in my district, I have decided not to sponsor this particular piece of legislation," he said in a statement released by his office.

But just because Sen. Mike Bell, of Riceville, is now the sponsor, English isn't backing off of Kelsey, who serves as chairman of the senate judiciary committee that will discuss the bill on Feb. 18.

"He's the one who presented the bill," said English. "I can take my name off of the restaurant but it's still my restaurant."

"I don't think this a fair representation of Tennessee," he added. "The 'new South' encompasses everyone: It's straight and gay."