When the Memphis City Council got to the real intent this week of the latest version of an anti-discrimination ordinance it has been debating off and on for two years, it wasn’t just a decision about including “sexual orientation” in the wording.
It was a question of whether the inclusion is a change to the city charter that would require a citywide referendum instead of a council vote.
The legal wrinkle prompted a 30-day delay in a council vote on third and final reading of the ordinance to await formal legal opinions from city attorney Herman Morris and council attorney Allan Wade.
Council member Wanda Halbert raised the important question that prompted a preliminary but blunt opinion from Wade.
“Let me just break it down for you,” he told the council. “You pass this tonight … we’re going to get sued about it. There’s no doubt in my mind. This is not to be taken lightly. This requires a referendum of the people.”
Morris agreed with Wade. But he also said the conditions are a matter of policy that is the job of the city administration, not the council.
The ordinance going into the Tuesday, Sept. 18, council meeting prohibited discrimination in city government hiring, promotions and demotions based on “non-merit” factors that were listed as “race, sex, creed, political affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability.”
Council member Lee Harris, the sponsor of the measure, introduced the amendment Tuesday adding sexual orientation to the list.
“This is not a time for Memphis to move forward. This is a time for Memphis to catch up,” Harris said. “This is not a civil rights struggle at all. This is the bread crumbs of a civil rights struggle.”
As currently amended, the ordinance does not apply to contractors or others doing business with city government.
Council member Bill Boyd, the only council member to voice opposition to the measure, said he was “disappointed” Harris didn’t make the amendment earlier in the council’s consideration of the matter.
“My spiritual beliefs, the words of my creator, your creator, your redeemer … is what I base my final decision on,” Boyd said, adding that he believed current city provisions were adequate protection against discrimination.
Opponents and proponents of the measure filled the council chambers with each group of citizens being given 15 minutes to make their case.
The Rev. Steve Gaines, pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, led the faction opposing the ordinance.
“The ordinance before you today is not about protecting homosexuals,” Gaines said. “This is about the furtherance of an aggressive political agenda.”
Jonathan Cole, head of the Tennessee Equality Project, led the faction favoring the ordinance, which included the Rev. Joseph Wallace Williams of Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
“This is not an issue of faith,” Williams said. “It is an issue of rights for all of God’s children. I absolve you of any shame or guilt that you might feel.”
After the council session, council member Reid Hedgepeth said he supported the amendment to include sexual orientation because “it’s the right thing to do.”
In a written statement, Hedgepeth acknowledged the Bible quotes from the Old Testament used by opponents of the measure.
“I prefer to take my values from the New Testament as well as leaders I admire,” Hedgepeth wrote, citing FedEx founder Fred Smith. “If businesses like FedEx are progressive enough in their views to have anti-discrimination policies which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation … then I think the government should follow suit and at least provide those same protections.”
He also said continuing to argue about “whether we should be allowed to openly and legally discriminate against some of our employees” is “petty and counterproductive.”