By Michael Cass, The Tennesean
Nashville made a significant move Tuesday to limit discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered people as Metro Council approved new rules for city contractors, joining more than 100 communities across the United States.
The council voted 21-15 - which was, despite appearances, the narrowest of margins - to require firms doing business with the city to promise not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Those companies will have to sign affidavits to that effect.
"The message it sends is that if you're talented and willing to work, you're welcome in Nashville, Tennessee," said Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project.
The legislation needed approval from at least 21 of the 40 council members to pass on the third and final vote.
Council sponsors introduced the legislation after Lisa Howe, a lesbian soccer coach at Belmont University, which has a large contract with Metro, left the school under murky circumstances last fall.
Belmont, which later added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy, will be exempted from the new requirement because it considers itself a religious institution. But Howe and her partner, Wendy Holleman, said they were thrilled to see where events had taken the city in the four months since Howe's departure.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Holleman, who is more than 8 months pregnant with the couple's daughter, Hope Janice.
"We never thought that we would be the catalyst for something this big," Howe said.
The proposal pitted gay-rights advocates against conservative groups, which said it would effectively discriminate against business owners whose religious beliefs don't condone homosexuality or transsexuality and argued that the government shouldn't be interfering in workplace practices.
Some opponents of the legislation carried signs and wore buttons Tuesday that showed stick figures of a man and a woman holding hands. During the council's final debate, Councilman Phil Claiborne said Metro was threatening to make life difficult for businesses it needs.
"Let's not punish folks that are needed to make this city's growth successful by putting additional burdens on them," Claiborne said.
Councilman Jim Gotto, also a state representative, said some contractors might walk away from their deals with the city because they don't want to compromise their values.
"This bill could hamper continuance of Metro's operations," he said.
A House subcommittee today will debate state legislation that would make it illegal for cities and counties to adopt such measures.
All are welcome
In 2009, the council passed a law protecting city employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Sponsors of the new law said it was time for Nashville to join cities such as Atlanta; Louisville, Ky.; Austin; Cincinnati; St. Louis; Dallas; Denver; Indianapolis; and Seattle in making a statement about what it expects from its business partners as well.
"This is a great step to show that we truly believe in equality," Councilwoman Erica Gilmore said.
Councilman Jamie Hollin, who did much of the vote-counting legwork as the bill made its way through the legislative process, said the final vote was a milestone moment for the city.
"As of today, no matter who you are, you're welcome in the city of Nashville," he said outside the chamber after the final tally was posted. "Not only can I tell my son that it's not cool to hate gay people, it's the public policy of this city."
Mayor Karl Dean said he would sign the bill into law if it passed. Councilman Michael Craddock, who is challenging Dean in this year's mayoral election, voted against the measure Tuesday.