Supporters have withdrawn a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, citing a lack of support from the Memphis City Council and the administration of Mayor A C Wharton. The Tennessee Equality Project and councilwoman Janis Fullilove this morning withdrew the proposed ordinance, which would prevent the city from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring or promotion of employees, and an accompanying resolution that would have included the ordinance’s language in city contracts.
Fullilove and TEP members said it was clear the ordinance, which was scheduled for the second of three readings this afternoon, lacked support from the 13-member council and Wharton’s administration, which said two weeks ago that it favors a more general ordinance approved by the Shelby County Commission earlier this year.
Michelle Bliss, vice chairwoman of the Shelby County Committee of the TEP, said council members were making decisions based on “fear and prejudice. At this time we don’t think we can get a fair hearing,” said Bliss. Fullilove said she was disappointed that she had to withdraw the legislation. “We’ve been working on that for three years now and we have some closed-minded people on the council,” said Fullilove. “They felt like if we could get Mayor Wharton to support it, we could get some of these other council members to support it.”
The withdrawal is designed to save Memphis City Government and the larger community from becoming a national disgrace in the movement to create an inclusive community that welcomes people from diverse backgrounds.
On the first of three readings of the Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinance (ENDO) on Aug. 10, the Mayor of Memphis and the Memphis City Council made it clear that proposed legislation would not receive a fair hearing. City Attorney Herman Morris announced that Mayor AC Wharton reversed his position supporting LGBT-inclusive workplace protections. Mayor Wharton pledged his support for LGBT-inclusive workplace protections during his campaign and again when working with the Tennessee Equality Project through the City Attorney’s office to write the proposed ordinance.
Also on August 10, the Memphis City Council displayed an unexpected bias against the proposed legislation that is rarely demonstrated on other matters brought before the Council.
City ordinances on first and second reading are routinely bundled into a consent agenda that appears at the end of the regular agenda during City Council meetings. The Council reviews each item in the consent agenda and then votes to approve or disapprove all of the items in bulk. The Council waits for the third reading to debate ordinances and opens the floor for public comment from citizens for input.
But that didn't happen at the first reading. Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware objected to the inclusion of the ENDO and threatened to vote against the entire consent agenda if it was not voted on separately.
After the ENDO was knocked out of the consent agenda, Councilman Bill Morrison introduced a substitute ordinance that gutted the inclusive ENDO. His substitute ordinance contained no provisions protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. His substitute proposed protections based on non-merit factors that are already explicitly defined in current municipal, state, and federal law.
Even though I have reported on the situation in Memphis before, it still astounds me that in a city where the National Civil Rights museum is located, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and where the effects of discrimination for who you are have been felt for over two hundred years, that there could be such virulent opposition from the City Council. What I sadly predicted would happen has come to pass...for the power of religion and bigotry truly reign supreme in the Mid-South.