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"Medical freedom" at the forefront of 2022 Tennessee elections

Jul 17, 2023

A rally protesting COVID-19 vaccinations outside the Tennessee Capitol in 2021. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

A rally protesting COVID-19 vaccinations outside the Tennessee Capitol in 2021. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Tennessee Stands — its founder and executive director is Gary Humble — didn’t slow down. It pumped out social-media posts and email newsletter updates. The group tried to shape state legislation; some of its targeted priorities in 2022 included “medical freedom” and so-called “election integrity.” It used a far-right view of Christianity as a driving force for its work.

This story is the fourth entry in a weeklong series.Monday: A darker shade of redTuesday: Evolution of the Christian right in TennesseeWednesday: COVID-19 and controversy in Tennessee

Williamson County Schools’ school board removed a mask mandate in mid-November 2021. Moms for Liberty-Williamson County, its supporters on Facebook, or both, still had other things on their agenda. Just like early on, Moms for Liberty-Williamson County wanted books banned. There was a desire to affect curricula. They took issue with things that taught students about the LGBTQ+ community as well as racism and the U.S. Moms for Liberty-Williamson County opposed legislation that would require children in fifth through eighth grade to learn about Black history and Black culture. It also pushed for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that would let teachers, principals and other public-school employees use inaccurate pronouns when referring to students.

On Jan. 23, 2022, people walked the streets of Franklin, taking part in protests going on that month around the world against coronavirus pandemic-related mitigation efforts. At one point, at least some of the people participating in the Franklin protest stopped to take a group picture. No one was masked in it. Practically everyone was holding a sign; most, if not all, were conspiratorial and anti-science. One man, bald and smiling, stood out. Kneeling in the front row, toward the middle, he held two anti-vaccination signs, each had at least one Nazi-era yellow Star of David badge and the word “Vaccinated” within it.

“WELCOME AMERICAN FREEDOM CONVOY,” a sign read, in all-capital letters.

The sign was hard to miss at the James E. Ward Agricultural & Community Center in Lebanon, Tennessee. Located in Middle Tennessee’s Wilson County, Lebanon is about 30 miles east of Nashville and about 45 to 60 miles northeast of Franklin, depending on which route you drive.

Gates were already open for the American Freedom Convoy’s event there at around 2:30 on that sunny afternoon. Crowds had arrived. Food trucks, too. People were selling t-shirts and flags. And the event’s lineup of speakers and performances were underway.

The American Freedom Convoy was one of a number of cargo-truck-centered convoys in the U.S. that were copycatting the then-recent far-right Canadian truckers convoy, which had protested pandemic-mitigation efforts. In the U.S., far-right truckers from a number of places had already started working their way to the Washington, D.C., area to lawfully protest. They claimed that their freedom had been infringed upon by the federal government. As for the American Freedom Convoy, it specifically set out “[t]o restore our freedoms, our civil liberties, and to bring an end to all unconstitutional mandates with legal provisions in place to ensure this never happens again,” according to a southeastern regional-chapter’s private Facebook group.

The event in Lebanon served multiple purposes. One was to give truckers a place to rest before resuming their trek east. It also let locals show their support for the truckers, by buying them dinner and donating items to them: playing cards, toilet paper, toe warmers.

A third purpose — intentional or not — was to be a far-right pep rally. There were American flags; people dressed in American flag-themed clothing; pro-Trump signs; a sign reading “ARREST Fauci,” referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s then-top government health official when it came to infectious diseases; a “FJB LET’S GO BRANDON” flag, with “FJB” meaning “F— JOE BIDEN” and “LET’S GO BRANDON” being the popular anti-Biden saying used by some Trump supporters. One woman wore a dark shirt with “UNMASKED UNMUZZLED UNVACCINATED UNAFRAID” in white lettering.

Turnout at the event was solid. According to a tally by one of the event’s organizers, Sarah Kearney, posted on March 4, 2022, in a private Facebook group called Freedom Convoy Tennessee — which the Lookout had direct access to — “thousands” of people showed up. But one key group of event-goers fell short of Kearney’s expectation: actual convoy trucks. While she didn’t provide the number of trucks that showed up, Kearney posted it wasn’t “hundreds.”

Part one: A darker shade of red

“How many of you want to continue to fight for your freedom in Tennessee?” Kearney asked in a mid-morning post in the Facebook group on March 5, 2022. “Our rally was just the beginning. We are the majority in this country! Once the rest of the world figures this out we will be unstoppable. We want to do more events, we want to get more information out. Who’s in?”

Later that afternoon, Kearney posted again. This time, she had an announcement for the group: She had spoken with Humble from Tennessee Stands — Humble was a featured speaker at the Lebanon event — and he had talked her into helping out with his efforts to affect legislation in the state.

“We ALL need to SHOW UP at The Capitol for this hearing to show our support for medical freedom,” Kearney said of an upcoming hearing in Nashville.

The particular piece of far-right legislation that was set to be discussed would, basically, make it illegal if you turned someone away from a place, like a restaurant, if they hadn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 or another communicable disease.

Kearney continued: “Regardless of your age, job, or school, NO ONE should be able to force ANY injections against your will.”

The association between Kearney, Humble and Tennessee Stands would continue.

A new convoy happened on April 30, 2022, this one local. People motored from here and there in Tennessee to Nashville. At the time, Tonya Dodd was an administrator of the private Facebook group for the Tennessee chapter of the The People’s Convoy; The People’s Convoy was another of the multiple far-right U.S. cargo-truck convoys. According to an April 12, 2022, post by Dodd in The People’s Convoy Official-Tennessee Facebook group, people from a number of convoys and other groups in Tennessee had banded together. She said the focus going forward would be restoring the U.S. Constitution as well as election/voter integrity and accountability — all far-right conspiracy theories.

Evolution of the Christian right in Tennessee

In Tennessee, people within the far right were hard at work trying to get themselves or others elected in the 2022 midterm elections. That way, they could try to put their stamp on things from the inside.

For Robin Steenman, work started before 2022.

In 2021, a self-described conservative, Judeo-Christian political action committee named Williamson Families got launched. The person in charge? Steenman. You see, Moms for Liberty-Williamson County was classified as a 501(c)(4) organization, and — according to the IRS — could only run as a non-profit and was solely limited to operating in a fashion that promoted social welfare. That meant elections were off-limits. Steenman relayed the news on the private Moms for Liberty-Williamson County Facebook group on Oct. 6, 2021. But she noted a loophole: a PAC.

In an email to Williamson Families’ listserv — which a Lookout writer received directly — a week later, Steenman wrote to supporters, saying that the PAC’s purpose was to find, vet and support candidates. After endorsing three candidates running for county alderperson in the local 2021 election, Williamson Families set its sights on 2022.

On March 8, 2022, more than a dozen people publicly got Williamson Families’ endorsement at an event in Franklin.

“Psalm 144: Praise be the Lord, my rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle,” Steenman said from the lectern on the stage at the event. “The hands of the American people are what will tend the sacred fire of liberty. Williamson Families is not going away. And we will not be cowed. And we will not be afraid. We derive our courage and our calling from God above, and when we win this year, in 2022, all glory to God above.” Steenman paused. The crowd clapped. She continued: “Not me.”

On April 6, 2022, Williamson Families announced via email an endorsement for someone running in the midterm elections for county juvenile court judge. At that point, the PAC had doled out 20 endorsements. Half of Williamson County Schools’ board was on the ballot; those six seats had Williamson Families-approved candidates vying for them.

“It’s a 12-member [school] board, and if they get four of those seats, that gives them more of an opportunity to try to swing some other people over. If they get four out of the six seats, then, in two years, they’ll have the opportunity to take four or six more,” says Brad Fiscus. “If they were to get all six, then all hell will break loose in the school system. I really see it happening because, even though that doesn’t give them the majority, it gives them, basically, a six-six tie. Vetoes anything. It kills anything.”

Muzzled: COVID-19 and controversy in Tennessee

Of the PAC’s remaining 14 endorsements, 13 went to people running for seats on the county commission. The other one went to Connie Reguli in the county juvenile court judge race; however, that endorsement would get rescinded. Why? Turns out, Reguli had been found guilty of breaking the law.

Brad Fiscus wouldn’t be surprised if Steenman runs for office herself someday. But, he noted, her running hinged on how her agenda would end up doing at the ballot box in the midterm elections.

A seat representing Williamson County in the state’s Senate was also up for grabs in the midterms. One person hoping to win it was none other than Humble.

He was challenging the Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Johnson himself had embraced far-right ideology.

And Gov. Bill Lee, a Franklin-native, was up for reelection. Since first getting elected in 2018, Lee had signed an anti-LGBTQ education bill as well as an anti-transgender health-care bill into law. Those moves are in addition to him banning critical race theory from being taught in public schools.

Former president Donald Trump endorsed Lee for reelection.

Tennessee’s two U.S. senators still had time left on their six-year terms. So, their seats weren’t available in the midterms. However, all nine of the state’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives were. And, yes, candidates with far-right views threw their hats into the ring.


by Devon Heinen, Tennessee Lookout August 3, 2023

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Devon Heinen is a journalist covering U.S. national affairs and specializes in writing long-form features. His reporting on the U.S. Indigenous suicide epidemic as well as on the aftermath of the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, won him national awards in narrative feature writing from the Society for Features Journalism. Devon lives in New York City. You can follow him on Threads (@heinendevon) and on Twitter (@DevonHeinen).

Monday:Tuesday:Wednesday:A darker shade of red