Sexual orientation and gender identity became one step closer to protection under Metro Davidson County’s non-discrimination policies on August 18.

By a vote of 23-16, with one abstention, the Metro Council approved on second reading BL2009-502, sponsored by at-large Council member Megan Barry, which would amend the Metropolitan Code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity through its employment practices. The ordinance will be up for a final vote on Sept. 15.

Also passed was an amendment to the bill making it clear that the move not extend domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples. Should the bill receive a majority of votes at its third reading, it will go to Mayor Karl Dean, who has indicated he supports the measure and will sign it into law.

“I do not stand here alone,” Barry said when introducing the legislation. “I am supported by 44 political and community groups. This ordinance makes it unacceptable to use a person’s identity to hire or fire them. This labels that and it outlaws it. “

Despite its eventual passage, the council vote was far from certain as opponents of the legislation introduced BL2009-526, which passed a first reading unanimously. The bill, sponsored by Council members Sam Coleman, Phil Claiborne and Duane Dominy, would amend the code to prohibit Metro from discriminating on the basis of non-merit factors, but does not specifically name any particular group.

It was the inclusive nature of the new bill, argued its sponsors, which made it a better choice than the Barry legislation, which they asked her to defer for at least one more session.

“This bill addresses and expands those concerns, and covers all employees, not just one category,” Claiborne said. “502 only picks out a segment and gives them status as a protected group.”

“Two weeks ago, the sponsor of 502 stood here in great distress and asked for a deferment,” Coleman added. “We would like for her to show that fairness on the other end, and let this bill catch up. We want to see that all are treated fairly in the workplace.”

A motion was made to defer the bill to the next council meeting, but a competing motion to table to deferment was then made. That motion passed 22-18, which barred any further efforts to stall a vote on second reading.

At that point, several other council members rose in opposition, some decidedly more vocal than others. And while Barry mentioned several organizations, union groups and churches in her remarks, several members in the audience sported “vote no” lapel stickers that also featured a heart with “God Knows Best” inscribed inside. They responded appreciatively to remarks by Council member Jim Hodge, who said that, “As a Christian, I cannot endorse a lifestyle that is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments. For those members of the homosexual community, who have sat at my dining-room table, I cannot support a lifestyle that is unhealthy.”

Hodge went on to compare homosexuality to a lifestyle choice, not unlike that of dieting, smoking or recycling, and he advocated, “making a lifestyle change, which can be done.”

Proponents of the bill had feared that the new legislation, which some said looked good on its face but would not hold up if challenged in court due to its vagueness, might peel away some votes. The entreaties of council members not in support might have done the same, but in the end the votes lined up in their favor, said Chris Sanders, chair of the Tennessee Quality Protect.

“The majority of the council was not fooled by the substitute bill,” Sanders said. “Our hope is that majority holds for the third reading.”

As for the new, competing legislation, he charged that “Why should we trust people who sponsor that bill? Two weeks ago, they were condemning the inclusion of us in any bill at all. Why would we support them now? The Barry bill is the right bill.”

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