Friday, October 12, 2012

New Morris Opinion Okays Sexual Orientation Amendment for Council Vote

Posted by on Fri, Oct 12, 2012 at 9:19 AM

City Attorney Herman Morris
  • City Attorney Herman Morris
The anti-discrimination ordinance that was shelved last month will be back on the City Council agenda Tuesday, thanks to a new opinion from City Attorney Herman Morris that effectively reverses his prior advice that a referendum would be necessary to add an amendment regarding sexual orientation.

At the Council’s September 18 meeting, Morris’ earlier admonition had halted an effort to pass an amendment from Councilman Lee Harris adding a reference to “sexual orientation” to his proposed ordinance expanding protections for workers on the city payroll. Under advice from Council attorney Allan Wade, the Council voted for a 30-day pause, during which the issue would be given further legal research.

On Thursday, Morris announced his new finding in response to a formal request from Harris. The kernel of Morris’ opinion is this: “"While the non-discrimination in employment ordinance you have proposed includes language that is not found in the City Charter, the proposed ordinance does not conflict with the Charter and therefore, does not require a charter amendment by referendum vote."

The entire opinion can be read here: 20121005164543629.pdf.

Morris’ new opinion clears the way for a reconsideration of Harris’ amendment, which would add the term “sexual orientation” to a list of categories already included in Harris’ original ordinance expanding workplace protection. Those other categories were age, disability, ethnicity, and national origin.

All indications are that a majority of Council members are prepared to vote for the Harris ordinance, which had been amended conditionally on September 18 by a 7-5 majority, with one abstention.

Between that September 18 meeting and Morris' issuance of his new opinion, numerous proponents of the Harris ordinance, on and off the Council, had argued on its behalf with Mayor A C Wharton, who was thought to have concerns about its effect on the balance of power in City Hall.

Those interventions were influential, as was the key conversion of Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, a conservative member who had invoked the name of FedEx founder/CEO Fred Smith on behalf of the ordinance.

Also having an effect were favorable legal opinions from elsewhere, including one from a City of Knoxville legal authority acquired by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the author of a anti-discriination resolution on the Commission in 2009.

With chances good for passage of Harris' amendment, the main issue Tuesday could be an effort, supported by Jonathan Cole and the Tennessee Equality Project, to add language concerning "gender identity" to the ordinance.

Cole, who said his organization was "encouraged" by Morris' opinion and by clear indications that Mayor Wharton would not be an opponent, was optimistic that the ordinance, "as written," would pass and hopeful that the votes would be found to add the additional language pertaining to transsexuals and transgendered persons.

He said the TEP was actively attempting to rally supporters via phone calls and emails, while, he acknowledged, the Family Action Council, an organization affiliated with Bellevue Baptist Church that opposes all sexually related versions of the ordinance, was active as well, particularly with robocalls.

Council members regarded as "swing votes" on the addition of "gender identity" language are Hedgepeth, Edmond Ford Jr., and Wanda Halbert.

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