Don’t expect the Metro Council to take on the hot-button issue of barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the private sector anytime soon.
Not with August’s Metro elections just around the corner.
For now, it appears council action provoked by Belmont University’s controversial dismissal of gay women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe would arrive with two bills — both potentially contentious in their own right — filed by council members Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson.
The East Nashville duo first filed a bill last week that could rescind Metro’s agreement with Belmont regarding its use of nearby Rose Park, where the university plans to pump $7 million in renovation for athletic facilities. And on Friday, they filed an ordinance that would force third-party vendors that contract with Metro to have written policies that ban discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as Metro does for its own workforce.
But while these are the proposals on the table, At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, in denouncing Belmont’s actions, launched a broader discussion about city government’s role in protecting gay and lesbian workers from discrimination by their employers. In a written statement delivered two weeks ago, the progressive first-term councilwoman raised the issue of prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the private sector, listing cities of comparable size and demographics to Nashville that have adopted laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at work.
“I look forward to the day when Nashville joins the many dozens of cities and counties across the nation, including Louisville, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Atlanta, that have written sexual orientation into local discrimination laws,” she wrote.
Because of its religious affiliation, Belmont would likely be shielded from a countywide ban, Barry correctly noted. “Nevertheless, what’s happened at Belmont illustrates in a compelling way how tragic this kind of thing can be for those involved,” she added.
Barry, who has hinted at greater political aspirations, would seem the natural candidate to spearhead such a law, having last year successfully piloted an update to Metro’s nondiscrimination policy that made it illegal for the city government to discriminate through its employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The council approved the new law by a 24-15 vote. Mayor Karl Dean last week requested that Metro boards and authorities, which do not fall under the law, adopt the same policy. It’s exactly what Hollin and Jameson want to apply to Metro’s third-party vendors.
But it could be a while before any elected official tries to expand that policy to all businesses in Nashville. Barry said she has no immediate plans to pursue that cause.
“I don’t have any proposed legislation that I’m considering in the near future,” she said. “But I think that discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong. I hope that Nashville as a community will come together and grapple with this issue, and come to a solution for all of our citizens over the next few years.”
Other cities’ laws more expansive
Barry’s hesitancy could be the result of some political calculation. Though Howe’s dismissal shone a spotlight on possible injustices against LGBT people in the workplace, the incident happened to occur nine months before Metro’s general election.
With more than half of the 40-member council, as well as the mayor, seeking re-election, Barry probably wouldn’t be doing her fellow members any favors by asking them to weigh in on a polarizing issue. Hollin and Jameson’s bills could create enough of a firestorm as it is.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a council member pursued such a citywide ban. In 2003, also an election year, former At-large Councilman Chris Ferrell proposed a bill that would do just that. (Disclosure: Ferrell is CEO of SouthComm Inc., which is the parent company of The City Paper.)
Ferrell later scaled back the bill to apply only to Metro employees after it became clear that the initial proposal lacked the votes to pass. The issue became contentious. Ultimately, in one of the most memorable votes in recent council history, former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry cast the deciding vote to kill the nondiscrimination policy, voting against essentially the same ordinance Barry pushed through six years later.
Local nondiscrimination polices vary from city to city, and some municipalities have protective measures that apply to housing as well.
Salt Lake City’s law has a more expansive employment discrimination ban. It reads, in part: “An employer may not refuse to hire, promote, discharge, demote, or terminate any person, and may not retaliate against, harass, or discriminate in matters of compensation or in terms, privileges, and conditions of employment against any person otherwise qualified because of a person’s sexual orientation or
In Salt Lake City, companies in violation of the law are subject to fines. The measures do not apply to religious organizations.
Asked if she would consider proposing a new, broader nondiscrimination bill during a possible second council term, Barry said, “It’s something I believe in.”
“What happens in the next council term will be decided on how different initiatives play out in Nashville,” she said. “If tomorrow, every workplace decided to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, then we wouldn’t need the legislation.”
Writing sexual orientation and gender identity into the city’s nondiscrimination law could be a difficult sell for a council some say is poised to become more conservative after August’s election.
At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine seems like a logical candidate to vote for such a law, having last year voted for Barry’s update. Still, he seems apprehensive about expanding it.
“I think the ideal of having a community in which no one discriminates is a goal that is certainly admirable, and something we need to strive towards,” Steine said. “I’m not inclined to try to legislate that. I think clearly that’s part of why we want to make sure the government is setting an example for the
Predictably, council members who voted against Barry’s ordinance a year ago are wary of a more expansive nondiscrimination law that would apply to the public sector.
“Obviously, I would be concerned about any laws that infringe on the right of businesses to choose their employees and to run their business as they saw fit,” At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard said. “The less government intervention on businesses the better, in my personal opinion.”
Not surprisingly, LGBT advocates are likely to support Barry if she decides to move toward a broader policy.
“In principle, we would support that,” said Chris Sanders, who chairs the Nashville committee of the Tennessee Equality Project.
“We saw very strong support for the nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009,” Sanders said. “There were 10 congregations in Nashville that were supportive of that effort, who endorsed the effort. There were 51 community groups that endorsed the nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009. I can’t say that all of them would support applying that to the private sector, but we had overwhelming support for the  ordinance.”
Asked for his thoughts on Hollin and Jameson’s proposal to obligate Metro’s third-party vendors to the city’s nondiscrimination policy, Sanders called it “an appropriate next step.”
“It’s a privilege to do business with Metro, not an automatic right,” he said.
As elected officials explore the role of government in legislating against employment discrimination, it’s worth noting that companies large and small have started to write sexual orientation into their own polices.
Last year, Memphis-based FedEx made headlines when it agreed to add gender identity into its corporate nondiscrimination policy. According to Sanders, other businesses or institutions that have done the same include AT&T, UPS, Bank of America and Vanderbilt University.