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Non-discrimination ordinance passes Metro Council on third reading

September 15, 2009 Joe Morris   Comments

(Left) Former Councilman Chris Ferrell and current Councilwoman Megan Barry at the victory celebration. Ferrell was the sponsor of the first non-discrimination ordinance that failed a few years ago. Barry was the lead sponsor on the current bill that finally passed.  Photo by Joey LeslieDespite repeated attempts to derail, water down or outright kill it, legislation that adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Metro Davidson County’s non-discrimination policy passed a third and final reading at Metro Council’s Sept. 15 meeting.

The bill now goes to Mayor Karl Dean, who has said he will sign it into law. Sponsored by freshman Council member Megan Barry and co-sponsored by nine other members, BL2009-502 ensures that Metro employees who feel they have been discriminated against based on either or both of these issues now will have redress within the personnel system. 

The road from being placed into the hopper for consideration to final passage was a bumpy one. See related story. 

After passing on first reading, the bill was attacked by opponents in the council’s personnel committee, where members brought up issues ranging from the dangers of creating a protected class of citizens to saying it was needless legislation due to existing coverage under the federal civil rights laws.

TEP President H.G. Stovall celebrates outside the Council Chambers with other proponents of the non-discrimination ordinance.  Photo by Jerry JonesEventually a competing bill was proposed, BL2009-526, which prohibited discrimination based on “non-merit” factors. Proponents of 502 accused that bill’s sponsors, including Council members Sam Coleman and Phil Claiborne, of crafting legislation so broad as to be inapplicable, and therefore gutting the intent of 502.

Coleman and others vehemently denied that was their intent, and claimed at the Sept. 15 meeting that their bill was broader, and better, than 502.

“We want to be able to accomplish something that will protect all of the people, not just a few,” Coleman said. “This is a comprehensive bill; it does not exclude anyone.”

That bill was up for a second reading at the Sept. 15 meeting, where an amendment to add sexual orientation to the bill was added by Claiborne. But when Council member Erik Cole offered an amendment that would also include gender identity, the fireworks started. 

“If the sponsors of this bill want to include everything that’s in 502, then all factors there should be included,” Cole said.

“This is a distraction” Coleman shot back. “We do not want to tie the hands of supervisors, and we don’t know what gender identity includes … would they want a third bathroom?”

Council attorney Jon Cooper was asked about gender identity by Councilmember Eric Crafton, who said he was concerned about a Metro employee “in the juvenile court system, checking in children, who might be a man one day and decide to be a women the next … will they be allowed to frisk men, or women?”

Cooper said that gender identity as such tended not to indicate people going back and forth on how they express their gender on a daily basis, at which point Crafton said he planned to vote ‘no’ on both bills anyway as he felt the issue was covered under existing civil rights legislation.

Eventually both amendments to 526 were approved, as was the amended bill itself. When 502 came up, Barry moved for its passage and after a vote was called that effectively precluded further discussion, it won passage by a 27-15 vote.

When Cole’s bill to include gender identification to the Coleman legislation passed, backers of 502 knew they probably had a win, said Chris Sanders, chair of the Tennessee Equality Project.

“When they let that amendment go through, we knew they were giving up,” Sanders said. “This means that the representatives of our city now recognize that we’re full citizens.”

“I’m elated to know that the Metro Council believes in this issue enough to pass the first legislation of its kind in Tennessee,” added H.G. Stovall, president of the Tennessee Equality Project.

“Workers for Metro are now protected, but we have lot of work to do for the workers in the rest of the county,” Sanders added. “It’s an incredible first step, though.”

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