As the February 15 meeting of Nashville Metro Council approaches, proponents of a proposed non-discrimination bill are stressing the importance of equality as a way to improve the city's business environment.

On January 18, Metro Council voted 22 to 13 on the Contract Accountability Non-Discrimination Ordinance, a bill that would require any company doing business with Metro to abide by the county's non-discrimination policy. The bill had been pulled individually to force a first-reading vote. Most council ordinances clear first reading unanimously without debate and are then directed into the council’s committee system.

The legislation will now go to the personnel committee before heading back to the council for two more votes.

Councilmen Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson introduced the bill last December following the controversial departure of Belmont soccer coach Lisa Howe. Howe left Belmont after revealing that her same-sex partner was pregnant. Belmont University does not have an anti-discrimination policy to protect LGBT students, faculty and staff. In addition to Howe's dismissal, a student group of LGBT students has been repeatedly denied recognition by the university.

Chris Sanders, chair of Tennessee Equality Project's Nashville committee, sees the ordinance as an opportunity to "move us forward" in the drive for gay rights citywide.

"TEP would like to see a solution that could unite business, the administration, the Council, and the GLBT community, one that paves the way for lasting advances," he says. "I think the debate on the bill can get us there if we work carefully with all the parties who have a stake in the issue."

This new piece of legislation would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes previously outlined. Jameson says the business culture in Davidson County will suffer unless these workplace regulations are implemented.

"The proposed ordinance simply completes a logical circle," he says. "For years if not decades, Metro government has asked those it contracts with to sign a piece of paper agreeing to abide by Metro's non-discrimination policy. In 2009, we amended that policy to include sexual orientation. This ordinance asks that we similarly include that new policy on those pieces of paper."

The sponsors of the bill have agreed to defer it until February 15 to give time to the Mayor and Chamber to formulate a position. The Mayor's office has yet to express an position on the bill, and the Chamber of Commerce is currently studying the issue.

A large faction of the Metro Nashville area has rallied around this proposed ordinance, with over 50 businesses pledging their support in the Tennessee Equality Project's CANDO campaign to raise awareness. Major organizations in the GLBT community, including PFLAG Nashville and the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce, are actively promoting the bill to their memberships.

“At work, no one should be judged on any non-performance related factors as a consideration of employment or promotion," says Michael Fluck, president of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce. "Sexual orientation and gender identity are one of the last non-federally protected classes in the workplace. Most companies are already policing themselves with voluntary implementation of progressive non-discrimination policies because they know it’s the right thing to do and good for business.”

Davidson County's unemployment rate held steady at 8.5 percent in December, a number just below the national average of 9.1 percent. According to Hollin, the ordinance would attract "more talent" to the Metro area.

The Memphis City Council failed to ratify its employment non-discrimination ordinance last November, shortly after a Tennessee Center for Policy Research study ranked Memphis last in a list of the state's business-friendly cities. Sanders says that passage of the Nashville bill would augment the city's image as an inclusive place to live and work.

"The conversation has already led some construction companies that contract with Metro to reconsider their policies," he notes. "That reflects positively on Nashville." 

Despite potential economic benefits for the Metro area, opponents of the ordinance have moved swiftly to slow its progress. Tennessee House of Representative member Glen Casada from Williamson County plans to introduce legislation this session that will limit the local government's involvement in privately-owned businesses.

On January 12, more than 40 Nashville business leaders and Christian conservatives met with Casada and Rep. Jim Gotto to discuss plans to the impede the bill's progress. Those opposed to the legislation say they are worried about the overregulation of private businesses.

Hollin says that the group's expressed concern is merely a ploy to draw attention away from discriminatory attitudes.

"They're using this policy argument to conceal their true feelings," Hollin says. "It just doesn't hold water. It's 2011, and it's time to answer the question 'Are we OK with different types of discrimination?' And I believe that we will vote to not accept discrimination in any form."

Hollin, who disagrees with those who view the bill as an "imposition," also notes that not all businesses will be regulated under the proposed policy.

"There's a religious exemption in the bill," he says. "People who are religious can go ahead and hate or discriminate, but the (lawmakers) realize the scripture defense falls flat, so they have to use something else."

He adds, "A government contract is not a normal contract. Whenever taxpayer money is expended, that's a city project, and that decision is made in order to benefit all taxpayers of Davidson County. It (the ordinance) is only fair if businesses want to use tax dollars."




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