Sunday, September 16, 2012

Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Hinges on a Head Count

Council sponsor Lee Harris is hoping two more colleagues will commit themselves to inclusion of LGBT categories.

Posted By on Sun, Sep 16, 2012 at 10:26 PM

Councilman Lee Harris
  • Councilman Lee Harris
There was a lull in August, and the weather may be cooling, but the action in City Hall could heat up again on Tuesday, as the City Council takes on the issue that will not die (state government’s efforts to squash it notwithstanding): anti-discrimination.

And, in particular, anti-discrimination with respect to sexual orientation. Or so is the hope and intent of Councilman Lee Harris, fresh from an engergetic Sunday “Equal Protection for All” Rally at the National Civil Rights Museum, held under the auspices of the Tennessee Equality Project and assorted co-sponsors many of them mainstream.

Come what may, Harris will sponsor an ordinance at Tuesday’s Council meeting designed to guarantee non-discrimination in city employment. At minimum, his ordinance will specifically apply to four conditions not expected to engender much controversy — those of national origin, age, disability, and ethnicity.

Harris also wants to ban discrimination in city employment on the basis of "sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression," and that’s where some resistance could arise, both on the Council and in the city. Harris said Sunday night he thought most of the organized opposition in the city — “90 percent” — emanates from Cordova and specifically from Bellevue Baptist Church, where pastor Steve Gaines and church members have mounted a campaign against the ordinance.

As for the population at large, Harris doesn’t foresee much objection to the inclusion of the sexual categories, loosely characterized by the initials LGBT (for “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered/transsexual”). “We wouldn’t be doing anything radical. We wouldn’t even be moving ahead much. We’d just be catching up,” said Harris, who said most major American cities have already moved to extend workplace protection to people in those categories.

Nor does Harris believe such an ordinance would be in conflict with legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2011 that prohibits local jurisdictions from passing anti-discrimination provisions at variance with those ordained by state law. Harris, who consulted legal authorities in and out of city government, said he was assured that, so long as his ordinance confined itself to municipal government and did not apply to “third party”employers, it would pass muster.

But Harris said his decision on whether to include the sexual categories in his anti-discrimination ordinance will be based solely on a simple practical test: “Do we have the votes? That’s it, pure and simple.” The ordinance will need 7 of the Council’s 13 votes to prevail.

And Harris was explicit on the subject. There are five Council members who would definitely support the more inclusive version of the ordinance, Harris said. They are: himself, Myron Lowery, Shea Flinn, Janis Fullilove, and Jim Strickland. Two other Council members — Wanda Halbert and Ed Ford — Harris counts as undecided, the swing voters on the issue.

So there is that uncertainty. Meanwhile, other forces in the city are taking sides. The executive committee of the Shelby County Democratic Party added its endorsement of the full ordinance at its regular monthly meeting last Thursday night. And a variety of groups, both pro and con, will undoubtedly be making their wishes known between now and Tuesday.

Harris sees it as an issue whose time has come.

“If Wanda and Ed are aboard, we get it done,” said Harris. Otherwise, he will present the more limited version of the ordinance.

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