City to hear controversial equality amendment | MyFoxMemphis.com - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

City to hear controversial equality amendment

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

It sounds like an experience that would just invite a case of "writer's cramp."

But, for first term Memphis City Councilman Lee Harris, it was his weekend mission to promote an "engaged" public.

"I've got hundreds of e-mails from people who are very thoughtful about it, who are very sincere in their beliefs," he said. "I've responded to every single one of them. It's taken me all weekend and I'm here in the office again today."

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In what promises to be one of the most raucous and contentious city council meetings in recent history Tuesday afternoon, Councilman Harris will be in the eye of the storm as he sponsors a controversial amendment to the city's employment non-discrimination ordinance adding sexual orientation to expand the current workplace protections.

His amendment on the third reading of the ordinance will put the issue up for open discussion among his colleagues in front of an expected jam-packed audience of gay rights supporters and those in faith-based opposition to it. Harris is convinced the ordinance is devoid of any religious context.

"I think reasonable, level-headed people can agree that people in the workplace need some level of protection from arbitrary action by their employer," he said. "Just because you're gay or lesbian doesn't mean you should be disallowed from working for the city of Memphis and that you should respect that you'll be treated any differently."

However, recent history tells us the issue of "sexual orientation" and Memphis City Hall employment has never just been a simple one. Just two years ago, an attempt by Councilwoman Janis Fullilove to introduce a similar ordinance generated strong opposition from clergy leaders and sparked downtown demonstrations by the Tennessee Equality Project. It eventually led to Fullilove and the TEP reluctantly backing off, blaming Memphis Mayor A C Wharton for allegedly waning in his original support.

"We mainly didn't want the city of Memphis to be embarrassed," said Jonathan Cole with the Tennessee Equality Project in 2011. "Over 200 cities have these inclusive work sections in place and for a city of our size it's really abnormal not to have these."

Still uncertain his amendment will be passed, Harris hopes his colleagues will be as thoughtfully "engaged" in making a decision as those who've bothered to write him.

"It'll be a significant blow if it fails. But, I'm hoping we'll be able to summon enough political courage," Councilman Harris said.

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