A milestone will be reached this afternoon when the full Shelby County Commission considers the fate of legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the county’s non-discrimination provisions.

The Tennessee Equality Project’s Shelby County Committee has spearheaded the effort to get the legislation in front of county officials, and has met — and overcome — several bumps along the way.  Requests for legal opinions, amendments to dilute the ordinance’s coverage reach, protests from some members of the religious community and other issues have come up, and been met, said Jonathan Cole, committee chair.

“Even though it now just covers the county’s employees, there are still about 6,000 of them so it’s still very important,” Cole says.  “It sets a precedent and we’ve been able to address the concerns of several on the commission.”

On May 27, the amended version came out of the commission’s General Government Committee with five votes for, five against and two abstaining. It will need seven commissioners in the ‘yes’ column today, so Cole and other TEP members and supporters have been working to answer any and all questions the abstainers might have.

“We are reaching out to them through various emissaries to provide them with what they need in order to feel comfortable,” Cole says.

An anti-ordinance rally in front of the county-government offices when the bill was being reviewed last week didn’t quite go the way planners had hoped, which Cole says led to not only a response at the time, but further and much more visible community action in support of the legislation.

“There were a number of black and white ministers who came to speak out against the ordinance, and based their assertions on a very narrow biblical interpretation,” he said. “They were all behind the podium, and they didn’t count on their opponents showing up. We were there in front, and were able to give an alternative point of view to the media.”

Following that, a rally was held on May 31 that drew more than 500 supporters, including Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the ordinance’s sponsor, civil-rights leader Walter Bailey and others. The sheer volume of attendees was telling, Cole said, when it comes to gauging community support for the measure.

“It was upbeat and positive, a stark contrast to the other event,” he said. “Everything we’re doing to support the ordinance is positive, which we think is a great success.”

The Tennessee Equality Project’s involvement has been extensive, including providing commissioners with a list of Shelby County employers who already have these groups covered in their internal antidiscrimination policies.

“The ordinance would provide the most far-reaching protections of any local government in Tennessee,’ said Chris Sanders, chair. “Since Shelby County is Tennessee’s largest, the ordinance has the potential to protect a lot of people. It would be a victory for the GLBT community across the state because it would open the door to other cities and counties considering similar protections.”

The Shelby County Commission meets at 1:30 p.m.

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