Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Shelby County Anti-Discrimination Resolution Passes On 9-4 Vote

TransGriot Note: The Shelby County Commissioners met last night in front of a packed house to determine the fate of a non-discrimination ordinance proposed by Commissioner Steve Mulroy.

The opposition, led by Christobigot Archie Bunker, oops Wyatt Bunker successfully got the full ordinance boiled down to a single page resolution that only applies to county employees instead of the original ordinance which would have covered everybody in Shelby County.

I don't see that as a victory since the resolution is weaker than the original ordinance and you can't use it in court, but the local community does.

Here's Alex Donaich's play by play blogging of what transpired last night from the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

A resolution approved by the Shelby County Commission today promotes “non-discrimination” within the ranks of the county’s 6,000 employees.

And though it is in some ways weaker than an original ordinance that would have protected gays, lesbians and transgender people from job discrimination, Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a former Civil Rights attorney and a law professor at the University of Memphis, called the new measure “a defining moment in Shelby County.”

“I’m happy with it,” he said of the compromise measure.

The resolution was approved 9-4 after nearly three hours of passionate debate and speeches from those for and against the ordinance. The proposed law would have explicitly protected gay and transgender employees from discrimination both by county government, its contractors and some businesses in unincorporated Shelby County.

But the ordinance touched a deep nerve among some commissioners, many of whom argued that one's particular lifestyle shouldn’t be supported by law over others.

Commissioner Sidney Chism proposed a substitute resolution as a compromise, establishing non-discrimination for all of the county’s employees. Less than a page in length, the resolution states: “That discrimination against any Shelby County Government employee on the basis of non-merit factors shall be prohibited.”

Even though the vote was seen as a victory for the county’s gay and transgendered community, the new legislation is, in many ways, weaker than the original proposal.

County Attorney Brian Kuhn said the ordinance only applies to employees of county government.

Also, as a resolution, it can’t be enforced in court, but will be used in civil service proceedings that resolve internal employee disputes. It could also be introduced as evidence in a court hearing to appeal a civil service decision.

For example, if an employee is charged or disciplined because of sexual preference, that employee could use the new legislation to prove their rights were violated.

“A resolution you cannot enforce in a court,” Kuhn said. “A resolution is taking a policy and indicates the intent of the county commission’s policy, but you cannot enforce it like a law.”

Kuhn added the resolution has a lot of the same language as county’s existing employee handbook, but goes further to explicitly state the county's policy.

Despite its limitations, the significance of the resolution – adopted after a series of passionate speeches for and against the proposed law – was not lost on Commissioner Wyatt Bunker.

The conservative legislator has been a fierce critic against the county recognizing rights for gay and transgendered people. Bunker called the resolution “the tip of the iceberg of the homosexual agenda,” and said he was just as displeased with the approved law, even though it reflected a “watered-down” version of the original.

“Under the surface, there’s a bigger movement,” he said. “There’s a homosexual agenda and they want more normalcy and they want acceptance in our society and it’s really an attack on the traditional family, as I see it.”

Substitute motion against discrimination passes

The Shelby County Commission approved the substitute motion against discrimination in a 9-4 vote.

The resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Sidney Chism as a substitute to the original ordinance, establishes “non-discrimination” for all employees.

The resolution, which only requires one vote of the Commission as opposed to the three votes required by an ordinance, has fewer teeth than the original ordinance. But it appeared to work as a compromise, winning over a contingent of commissioners who had previously opposed the original.

Voting in support of it were Commissioners Mike Ritz, J.W. Gibson, Henri Brooks, James Harvey, Sidney Chism, Joe Ford, Matt Kuhn, Steve Mulroy and Deidre Malone.

Voting against it were Republican Commissioners Joyce Avery, George Flinn, Mike Carpenter and Wyatt Bunker.

Speakers, differing views continue to be heard

Speakers have been voicing their views for more than hour. They continue to take the lectern:

Kevin Miller said, “This ordinance shouldn’t even be passed. No way shape or form should this be passed.”

And to the former speaker, the U.S. Marine who was discharged because he violated the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, Miller said: “He shouldn’t have told the military he was gay!”

Another opponent, Pam Dallas, who said she is a born-again Christian, said God teaches that marriage should be between one woman and one man. She said she decided to speak out today to “honor God’s will,” adding that she doesn’t want the ordinance to “dictate my religion.”

Barbara Williams urged support of the ordinance, saying it’s a great opportunity to display the county’s dedication to equality.

Barbara Butler, who said she also is a born-again Christian, said her brother Michael died of AIDS in 1992. “He was a homosexual and it devastated my family,” she said.

“I loved my brother,” she said. “I loved him very much. He did become a born-again Christian.”

She added: "This lifestyle does lead to death. It leads to AIDS and death. It does kill people."

Butler said if her brother were here today, he would not be in support of this ordinance.

Susan McKenzie, a local attorney, said she frequently receives calls from gays and lesbians, who are fired here for their sexual orientation. And they’re not isolated. They have families, they own homes, and they pay taxes.

“When they’re fired, it affects our entire county,” she said.

She added: “Please support this resolution, although I would prefer it being an ordinance because I’m an attorney.”

Brad Watkins, who is black and an organizing coordinator of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, said African Americans should always be on the side of those who are oppressed. He said misusing religion, “our faith, or the Civil Rights Movement as a shield to hide bigotry means we have learned nothing, and it would be tragic.”

Parade of speakers now limited to a minute

More than three dozen speakers have taken the lectern so far, mostly for but also against the ordinance. Each speaker is now limited to one minute. The audience, on the whole, is fairly respectful during the mini-speeches:

Darlene Fike, a transgender woman, said being transgendered is a medical condition, not a choice.

Jamie Donelson, a 17-year-old with pink hair, said she came out on camera today, risking her family’s scorn.

“When this country was founded it was understood that church and state would be separated,” she said. “My sexuality shouldn’t control what job I get. I’m 17, it’s already hard enough to get a job.”

Terry Roland, a former political candidate who frequently speaks before the commission on issues, accused Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the ordinance’s sponsor, of using this hot potato to stir up support before the 2010 countywide elections.

Roland said he’s seen politicians do this before: “People will take an issue and tear our community apart,” he said, adding that commissioners should be focusing on important matters such as education.

Activist Jocelyn Wurzburg said being gay isn’t a choice. “This is not a choice, this is who you are. In the United States of America, we don’t discriminate against people for who they are.”

Timothy Smith, who is gay and a former member of the U.S. Marines, said he was discharged because of violating the U.S. military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He said discriminating against the gay community could mean losing some of the most valued employees.

Richard Breakstone said he didn’t think the country is pulling together when it recognizes a group which "has a lifestyle that is not consistent with what the word of God says.”

The audience booed.

“I hear some people booing,” Breakstone said, before continuing to say that it is “factually incorrect” that God made anything other than male or female.

"Homosexual is a choice, it’s not a person,” he said. “They are a person who makes a choice, just like alcoholics make choices.”

He was met with more boos.

Most speakers so far in favor of ordinance

Support for the ordinance among those choosing to speak is overwhelming. Many of the speakers are members of religious communities who say discrimination is not God-like. In the dozen or so speakers so far, many have chosen to quote Bible passages supporting equality for all.

County resident Lisa Johnson is the first -- and so far only -- audience member to speak against the ordinance, saying there shouldn’t be any policy based on a person’s lifestyle choice.

Her comments were met with loud applause, proving the division in the crowd.

NAACP agrees with ordinance

Johnnie Turner, leader of the NAACP, said the NAACP was founded in 1909 to fight discrimination “in any fashion, in any form.”

“We want the record reflect that the NAACP supports any ordinance, any proposal that will make the life for our fellow citizens equal under the site of God. It doesn’t matter your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation, your agenda. What matters is that each one of us is a child of God and we’re entitled to the same rights and privileges as everyone else.”

Turner was followed by Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, who said everyone, non-gays and gays alike, must take a stand against discrimination and for basic human dignity.

Those for and against the issue are coming up to speak one after the other.

Benefits for partners unclear

County Commissioner Mike Ritz asks the county attorney about the impact of the Chism resolution on county benefits. Would this resolution allow the homosexual partners of county employees to receive health insurance or retirement benefits?

No clear answer comes out of the human resources director.

But it is clear the substitute resolution would not be as strong as the ordinance. The county attorney said a resolution might not hold up in court.

Commission Chairwoman Deidre Malone said she supports the substitute resolution, just as she supported the original ordinance.

The floor has been opened to audience comments and former commissioner Walter Bailey is the first to take the podium and speaks briefly in support of an anti-discrimination policy.

Commissioner Harvey says no issues in Tennessee

Commissioner James Harvey is riling up the crowd with a “study” that provides data on high occurrences of discrimination. California tops the list with the most complaints, he reads.

Harvey points out that Tennessee is nowhere listed.

“We don’t have an issue here,” he said, to a chorus of boos from the crowd.

“We have no data for Shelby County and we have no data for Tennessee that says this is such an alarming problem that we need to institute a certain type of governance,” Harvey said.

Harvey says he supports Commissioner Sidney Chism’s substitute resolution, which would call for an end of discrimination in county government.

Commissioners appear to be in favor of Chism’s substitution, but it's still early.

A substitute resolution

Commissioner Sidney Chism asks for support on a substitute resolution that would put an end to discrimination in county government, “under any circumstance.”

The substitute resolution would replace the ordinance sponsored by Commissioner Steve Mulroy.

“It includes everybody, I don’t want no special ordinance,” Chism said.

Mulroy said he could support it, because in the end it accomplishes the same thing.

The debate begins

Debate on the ordinance is about to start. Commissioners have been given 10 minutes each to speak. Audience members will be given three minutes. Commission chairwoman Deidre Malone has asked the crowd to give a thumbs up to show their approval, in lieu of clapping. Thumbs down will substitute for boos.

Commissioner Sidney Chism has asked to speak first and starts by criticizing The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board.

“They pretty well made my mind up,” Chism said, calling The Commercial Appeal “the most divisive element we’ve got in this town when it comes to politics and race relations. So they pretty well make my mind up when it comes to issues.”

Chism appears to be against the ordinance, saying although he has homosexual family members and that he opposes discrimination, he doesn’t believe a certain class of people should be afforded special privileges.

“I don’t want to impose a rule on a certain segment of our society and not do it for everybody,” he said.

Gender quip ruffles audience

People continue to stream in before commissioners open debate on the discrimination ordinance.

In light of the growing crowd, Commissioner Wyatt Bunker asked whether “those who identify themselves as men would give up their seats for those who identify themselves as women.”

Bunker is one of the ordinance's fiercest critics and the irony of his quip wasn’t missed by those in the audience, many of whom are wearing “fairness” stickers.

Bunker’s remarks were met with boos and hisses.

County commission meeting packed; discrimination ordinance not discussed yet

More than 200 people are packed in the Shelby County Commission chambers this afternoon to rally support for or against a controversial ordinance that would protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from job discrimination.

The ordinance, sponsored by Commissioner Steve Mulroy, has set off a firestorm of opposition in Memphis and touched on deep issues of race, religion and sexuality.

Supporters of the ordinance hope to increase protections and end possible employment discrimination against homosexuals and transgender people. But last week conservative Commissioner Wyatt Bunker and local pastors held a press conference to blast the ordinance, calling it a first step for gays to pursue a broader agenda.

At today’s meeting, commissioners are expected to vote on the proposed law in the first of three readings. Supporters have come out in full force, wearing “I support fairness” stickers handed out before the meeting by the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay rights group. One supporter is waving a “Sunday School Teacher for Equality” banner.

But commissioners have not yet reached the item on the agenda and the crowd is, for now, subdued. Commission chairwoman Deidre Malone kicked off today’s meeting by asking for respect from all sides.

Earlier today, telephones were ringing constantly at the commission offices at the county administration building, as people on both sides of the issue made last-minute lobbying calls. One staffer had taken about 160 phone calls in a three-hour period today, with 80 people speaking in favor of the ordinance and 70 speaking against it.

Staffers said they’d received hundreds of calls and e-mails on the topic in recent days and that the citizen interest is the highest they’ve seen on any topic in recent months.

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