This week the Shelby County Commission was scheduled to begin action on an ordinance which, in the context of constitutional logic and simple justice, should be non-controversial but, alas, is unlikely to be treated as such. We
refer to a measure brought by Commis-sioner Steve Mulroy that would explicitly extend the protective umbrella of the U.S. Constitution to cover a class of people whom it presumably already covers implicitly.
What the ordinance does is prohibit discrimination of various kinds on the basis of "sexual orientation or gender identity or expression." (And, yes, that would include, besides gays, lesbians, and, for that matter, celibates, the relatively minute number of transsexuals — i.e., persons who have endeavored to change their birth genders by surgery or other means — who live in Shelby County.) The ordinance would prohibit discrimination against any affected employee of county government, it would prohibit such discrimination against an employee by any contractor doing business with the county, and it would prohibit — "subject to the limitations in state law and the Shelby County Charter" — such discrimination against employees by private employers operating in unincorporated Shelby County.
In our view, none of these provisions should merit even a modest raising of an eyebrow, though the last of them, especially, which would extend the ban against discrimination to private business, is likely to provoke a good deal of discussion.
The issue is simple. Nobody, in either the public or the private weal, would be required to extend to the affected individuals special benefits or constitutional protections not made available, as a matter of course, to all other citizens. Nobody, in either the public or the private weal, would be required to log social time with the affected individuals, any more than they are with any other class of persons.
Nevertheless, there will be debate and opposition, both on the commission and in the community at large — some of it on professedly moral grounds, some of it relating to fears of add-on responsibilities or fiduciary obligations on the part of government.
Yet the issue involved is simple: All citizens are to be afforded identical rights and protections under the Constitution. And, all hair-splitting and legitimate moral preferences aside, opposition to the proposed ordinance amounts to saying that constitutional rights are not to be regarded as universal and, in the language of George Orwell's Animal Farm, some citizens are more equal than others.
The penalties provided by the proposed ordinance for breach of its terms are hardly draconian. The most specific of them, directed at contractors in violation of the ordinance, merely stipulates that the commission may urge the county mayor to cancel the contract in question and debar the offending contractor from doing business with the county for three years.
Not everyone of good will is going to agree with us or with the ordinance — which, as we see it, merely asks each of us to respect the rights of others. But we are entitled to hope that debate on the matter, should it proceed beyond a first reading this week, will remain, as one opponent, Commissioner Mike Carpenter, put it, "toned down and respectful."