Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Memphis City Council makes progress but not enough

Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

The Memphis City Council made history yesterday in amending Councilman Lee Harris's employment non-discrimination ordinance by adding new non-merit factors which are not covered in the current municipal ordinance: age, disability, and sexual orientation. Seven council members, including 6 Democrats and 1 Republican, voted for the amendment - real progress.

Council members supported the amendment of the ordinance because of support from city employees and employee unions, faith leaders and other mainstream organizations. Tennessee Equality Project is grateful to  many who spoke or came prepared to speak on behalf of the amended ordinance.

But yesterday's victory is bittersweet for two reasons.

First, the council failed to include gender identity or expression in the amendment. At every step in this campaign, TEP has advocated for a fully inclusive ordinance. To exclude gender identity and expression ignores the very real hardships that transgender people face in Memphis. Because of the workplace discrimination they encounter, many transgender people face poverty, homelessness and violence. I reminded the council of this fact in my comments during public input. This ordinance is incomplete and unacceptable without gender identity and expression. We cannot abandon our transgender brothers and sisters and we will continue to push the council to amend the proposed ordinance again.

Second, City Attorney Herman Morris sabotaged immediate passage of the amended proposal by casting doubts on its compatibility with the City of Memphis Charter. Morris and Council Attorney Alan Wade  stated that the ordinance may make the city vulnerable to a lawsuit since sexual orientation is not mentioned in the charter or other state or federal law. Both attorneys suggested that a ballot referendum may be necessary to add such language to the charter to avoid court battles. The council voted to hold the amended ordinance for 30 days until the charter questions could be fully analyzed.

Since versions of this ordinance were introduced twice in 2010, the announcement of a charter conflict two years later is suspicious.

The charter conflict question is a farce. City employees deserve
to know why the administration is standing in the way of equality.
When Tennessee Equality Project worked with original council sponsor Janis Fullilove on the first version of an LGBT-inclusive ordinance, we met extensively with the City Attorney's office and Human Resources Attorney. TEP engaged in this process in good faith to ensure that the proposed LGBT-inclusive ordinance fit within the existing framework of municipal, state and federal law - including the City of Memphis charter.

Many council members and advocates at the meeting suspected foul play. The City of Memphis Charter states the following in Article 34, Section 249:
There shall be no discrimination in the City employment of personnel because of religion, race, sex, creed, political affiliation, or other nonmerit factors, nor shall there be any discrimination in the promotion or demotion of City employees because of religion, race, sex, creed, political affiliation, or other nonmerit factors.
I am not an attorney, but attorneys with whom I've consulted believe that the charter language is expansive in its scope with regard to prohibited factors in employment discrimination. "Other nonmerit factors" provides a floor, not a ceiling, for the recognition of additional forms of prohibited discrimination. Opponents of the ordinance are attempting to use the City of Memphis Charter in the same way that state lawmakers use HB600/SB632 to limit the ability of local government to prohibit discrimination of employees of contractors and other private employers.

To suggest that the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people be subject to a popular vote is a stalling tactic. The Wharton Administration deliberately intervened yesterday to prevent this ordinance from moving forward. City of Memphis employees who deserve to be treated equally on the job deserve to know why.

- Jonathan Cole

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