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Equal Access?

State Law against nondiscrimination ordinances affects local fair-housing law.

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A state law that was designed to prevent local governments from passing laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees contracting with cities and counties may unintentionally allow for housing discrimination in Memphis.

The Equal Access to Instrastate Commerce Act was signed into law last year, and Mayor A C Wharton says the law also nullifies part of the Memphis Fair Housing Ordinance, which protects people based on "source of income."

"Residents in Memphis no longer have recourse to fight discrimination in housing based on source of income," local activist Jonathan Cole said. "If someone is on a disability income and the landlord decides he doesn't want to rent to someone who is on a fixed income, they can turn them away."

State senator Jim Kyle of Memphis is sponsoring SB2762, which, if passed, will repeal the Equal Access to Instrastate Commerce Act. When he introduced the repeal bill last year, he wasn't aware of the Equal Access act's effect on fair housing in Memphis.

"I got a letter from Mayor Wharton on the unintended consequences of this action," Kyle said. "This is a perfect example of the folks in Nashville thinking they know more than folks in other communities."

The Equal Access act says that "no local government shall by ordinance, resolution, or any other means impose on or make applicable to any person an anti-discrimination practice" that deviates from the definition of discrimination in state law.

The state human rights law protects people based on race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin. It does not protect people based on sexual orientation or source of income.

"Rather than identifying particular groups, the [Equal Access act] essentially said that the state and federal laws are the ceiling for provisions for nondiscrimination," Cole said.

The Equal Access act does exempt employees of local governments from its restrictions, so Shelby County's ordinance protecting LGBT employees still stands. However, a Nashville ordinance protecting LGBT employees of contractors was nullified after the act's passage. If Kyle's repeal bill is passed, Nashville's ordinance and the non-discrimination clause in the Memphis Fair Housing Ordinance will go back into effect.

State representative Glen Casada of Franklin sponsored the Equal Access to Instrastate Commerce Act last year. Although the bill's opponents believe Casada's intent was to pass an anti-gay bill, he claims he was attempting to create uniform laws across the state with regard to contractors. He said he was unaware of any effect on housing in Memphis.

"One of the most important things for job creation and sustainability is a uniform set of laws across the state. When going from state to state, [contractors] know what is expected," Casada said.

But Kyle argues that Casada's bill is an example of government reaching too far.

"I have a philosophy that local governments should be able to manage themselves, and this anti-discrimination ordinance was a decision made by elected officials. Government closest to the people is best," Kyle said.

At press time, Kyle's bill was scheduled for a vote in the State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday, March 27th.

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