In what is the first-of-its kind in Tennessee, the Shelby County Commission has voted in a non-discrimination resolution that will prohibit discrimination based on “non-merit” factors. Commissioners voted 9 to 4 in favor of the resolution.
After more than three hours of passionate debate, the resolution is the result of a compromise of an ordinance that was originally introduced by Commissioner Steve Mulroy. Since it is a resolution and not an ordinance, it does not require the three commission votes that an ordinance does.
Mulroy is a former Civil Rights attorney and a law professor at the University of Memphis.
“The resolution does not go as far as the ordinance we originally worked with Commissioner Steve Mulroy to introduce,” said Jonathan Cole, chair, Shelby County Committee for the Tennessee Equality Project. “But it establishes protections for County employees and makes the County government a more welcoming employer for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.”
During the long hearing on the topic, commissioners read into the record some of those “non-merit” factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, in order to establish the resolution’s legislative intent.
“The measure is a compromise from the original ordinance which sought to prohibit discrimination in County government employment, discrimination by those contracting with the County, and discrimination in businesses in unincorporated parts of the County,” said TEP President and Chair Chris Sanders.
Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the ordinance only applies to employees of county government. 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.
“Also, as a resolution, it can’t be enforced in court, but will be used in civil service proceedings that resolve internal employee disputes,” he told the Commercial Appeal. “It could also be introduced as evidence in a court hearing to appeal a civil service decision.
Cole and Sanders both said they see the compromise as a victory for equal rights in Shelby County and would set a high standard for other local governments across Tennessee.
“It does, at least, highlight a principle that will make Shelby County government a more welcoming employer for the GLBT community,” Sanders said. “It also gives the Shelby County EEO a way of investigating complaints. We’ll just have to see how firmly the County will stand behind the language when the complaints come, but we’re pleased with the vote.”
Cole echoed his comments and said that another result of the new policy was the formation of new friends and allies.
“An incredible coalition came together with the TEP Shelby County Committee to advocate this policy that advances equality,” Cole said. “We are grateful to the organizations and individuals who worked so hard for passage of the resolution, especially Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who is a true ally and an eloquent advocate for equal rights.”
TEP says it plans to pursue stronger non-discrimination policies in the City of Memphis, Metro Nashville, and other parts of Tennessee.
“We have a great deal of work to do, but today we celebrate a victory,” Sanders said.
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.