VOL. 124 | NO. 105 | Monday, June 1, 2009
Debate Expected Over Sex Discrimination Vote
By Andy Meek
A proposal to ban employment discrimination in Shelby County government because of a person’s sexual orientation faces a make-or-break vote today.
The full Shelby County Commission will take up the measure for the first of three votes required before county ordinances can become law. The meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. in the Shelby County Administration Building at 160 North Main St.
Sponsored by Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the legislation was stripped down in committee last Wednesday on the heels of an intense two-hour debate that illuminated political and ideological fault lines.
Some commissioners framed the issue as a civil rights question. For others, the debate concerned government versus faith.
No matter which side of the dividing line they found themselves on Wednesday, still other commissioners made an effort to keep their rhetorical powder dry. Because in spite of a win, lose or draw last week, that meeting was only a prelude to today’s vote.
“As a general matter, there is this dynamic that it didn’t really matter, because either way it’s going to be discussed again on Monday, and Monday will have the larger audience,” Mulroy said. “So maybe there might be a (psychological) tendency to wait until Monday to really let go with both rhetorical guns.”
Competing beliefs, values
Today will decide whether the measure has cleared its first hurdle or rounded its last lap.
If the proposal doesn’t win seven of the votes on the 13-member commission, it dies for now.
Wednesday’s 5-5 vote – a lack of majority support that means the measure has an even higher hill to climb – was made possible because two Democrats abstained. If the breakdown remains the same today, those potential votes from Sidney Chism and James Harvey would be necessary for the proposal to stay alive.
Harvey said Wednesday he was torn over what to do.
“When this issue first came up, I was dead on the money. This is the right thing to do,” Harvey said. “Now I find myself in the middle of trying to make a decision I wish God would give me the words to speak on.”
Chism told at least one person in the audience during Wednesday’s meeting the issue was a political albatross. He also dismissed a column in The Commercial Appeal last week encouraging him to vote for the ordinance.
Chism said he’s still wrestling with the issue and media coverage would not force his decision.
“I’m torn between my religious beliefs and my upbringing and whether or not this class of folks is being discriminated against in any way,” Chism said. “And if they are, I’m totally against any discrimination in any form against any group of people. That’s basically where I am.
“I came up in the era when discrimination against blacks and people of color was widespread. So I understand that aspect of it. But I’m an old traditional Baptist, too.”
The posturing to come
At the outset, Mulroy envisioned the measure covering three groups of people: county employees, county contractors and private employers with more than 15 employees in unincorporated Shelby County.
Wednesday’s committee first voted to apply the language only to county government. After that came the tie vote on the tweaked language.
Mulroy bristled about the possibility of any more changes that might make the legislation more palatable to undecided commissioners.
“No. It’s already been amended severely as it is,” he said. “The amendments that took place in committee took out large portions of the scope of the bill, and it’s now down to a very narrow core.”
Speaking by phone with The Daily News, Mulroy stepped away briefly and then remarked, “My wife says maybe they’ll amend it again so that it’s only effective on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”