A packed city hall heard passionate arguments for and against a fairness ordinance for Georgetown Monday night.
Georgetown’s City Council held a first reading of the proposed ordinance after two hours of debate, but observances by veterans of the same debate two years ago believed Monday’s hearing was much more civil.
“I thought tonight was a much better council meeting on this issue than last time,” Mayor Tom Prather said. “The public responded well and was courteous of both sides of the issue.”
Three councilmembers — Tammy Lusby-Mitchell, David Lusby and Mark Showalter — sponsored the fairness ordinance, which includes updating the city’s civil rights section of its ordinances. City Attorney Devon Golden has said that section of the city’s laws has not been updated since the 1960s, and needed to match state and federal laws. It would also add a section on sexual orientation and gender identification.
City leaders also said that recent court decisions on the Hands On Original T-shirt case out of Lexington have provided guidance on what businesses can and can’t do when it comes to refusing service or products to people they may disagree with based on sexual orientation and gender identification, as well as race and other classifications.
“The ordinance in large measure is updating Georgetown’s civil rights ordinance to meet state law,” Prather said. “However we put it on the agenda as a fairness ordinance to be very direct and transparent. The portion of the ordinance relating to fairness is a small portion. We have tried to understand the law better than we had two years ago. More importantly, we have tried to understand the impact of recent court cases. What council members have tried to address is businesses and owners losing their religious freedoms, believing they have to forfeit deeply held religious convictions to exist under this ordinance. That was the concern heard two years ago, and what we heard tonight, and what we have worked to understand and address.”
Hands On’s case has been heard on appeal twice with rulings in favor of the company, and was heard last week at the Kentucky Supreme Court. Prather and Golden both think the lower courts decisions in favor of Hands On will be upheld.
Much of the debate centered on if a fairness ordinance was necessary and that it would infringe on the rights of business owners and religious beliefs, particularly in regard to sexual orientation and gender identification.
“I think this a point too far with an ordinance that is already here,” said Barry Alan Togal. “The fairness ordinance is obviously necessary and protects people from being discriminated against due to personal life, social life and business life. I don’t think we need to add anything to it that has not already been on the books from the beginning. Adding gender identification and sexual preferences is volatile at this time in our country, and codifying gender identities won’t do us any good but add division to our country and should not be added to make a political statement. We don’t need to protect any more protected classes. Everyone is a protected class already. You all have the same rights as I have.”
“The ordinance is not necessary,” said Ronald Fannin. To pass an ordinance such as this protects one segment of a community and takes the rights away from business and religious groups. My moral values alone stand against it.
“I don’t force my rights on the LGBTQ community but they want to force their rights and beliefs on me. The LGBTQ community wants ordinances to force people who do not agree with them to accept their lifestyle. I have a right to not accept the LGBTQ way of life.”
Supporters though spoke of their own families’ struggles with acceptance and feeling included in Georgetown.
“I am the proud mother of three sons, one of whom is gay,” said Carolyn Dennis. “He came out three years ago, but I have known much earlier. I asked him why he didn’t say anything earlier. He said, ‘I knew since I was 8, and I didn’t want to be gay.’ I have talked to older gay men and it takes to their mid 30s to get over homophobia so ingrained in our society.
“I see so many traits in (her son). He is in grad school, studying to becoming a licensed clinical social worker, compassionate, kind and has talked about working in drug counseling.
“As a mother, I want for all my children the same thing all parents want — to be self-sufficient, to love and be loved. The fairness ordinance simply asks that people aren’t discriminated against in employment or housing. It does not ask anyone to embrace any particular lifestyle. It asks for fair treatment or a lack of a bigotry from members of the community.”
Several pastors also spoke against the ordinance, saying it goes against their religious and moral beliefs.
“The fairness ordinance seems redundant to me because it already includes sex,” said Gano Baptist pastor Rob Muncy. “I appreciate the intent, and I love everybody. I don’t want anybody to walk away thinking that gender identity is my primary issue. As I preach, the gender identities are pretty clear and laid out in the Bible. I preach love and kindness, but also Biblical precepts and when they run their businesses they need to be allowed in the kindest way possible to respect everyone’s views without compromising their own views. A red flag was exemption of churches and groups to practice beliefs in purview, but our purview is our community and to limit that is detrimental.”
“I have worked here for more than 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes in this town, and the things I’ve seen change I don’t like,” said Frankie Fitch, an associate pastor. “When we voted to allow liquor sales, where did it get you? It is on every corner. How much farther will you go to allow the things that are not moral to take place? I don’t agree with fairness ordinance. What about my rights? It breaks my heart because I see people standing for things that are so wrong.”
“The Bible says homosexuality is a sin and there are two sexes,” Kyle Fannin added. “Any letters from pastors should be taken in that context. This is about attitudes and religious convictions people want to see changed. It’s not fairness. It’s about forced agreement. Do you agree with the government forcing you to agree with a lifestyle.”
Others though said the very comments against the ordinance prove it is needed. Gina Kierwan asked how many were Christians, then how many were liars or adulterers or addicted to porn.
“Can you imagine if everyone had to walk around with what their sin was? If those bakers didn’t want to make a cake for a gay couple could they make a cake for a liar or an adulterer? The fact we have had so many people speak against it shows we need it.”
“I would like to think as a human and a member of society I don’t discriminate against people based on color of their skin, religious beliefs, ethnic background and the kind of sex they have behind closed doors as long as it is adult and consensual,” said Susan Neumeyer. “Sometimes, as humans, my and our bias comes out. I strive hard not to discriminate. I support a fairness doctrine. I wish we didn’t need it and our culture didn’t need it. Our Declaration of Independence said all men are equal. If that was true, we wouldn’t need laws that decriminalized slavery, desegregated schools, gave women the right to vote and we would not need an ordinance to have people who love people differently than you or I be treated the same as you and I.”
“I was raised in a Baptist home, and I don’t see how the two things are together,” Millie Wrobleski added. “This is a government policy decision and seems simple to me. I see a lot of upside. Maybe you don’t think discrimination happens, but it does. If the worse thing that happens is we pass an ordinance we don’t have to use that is a great thing. Maybe you never thought about this protection because it doesn’t pertain to you. But if you ask any gay friends or family, and if you don’t think you have any, you are wrong or not very inclusive, ask them if they have been discriminated against. They will tell you they have. If you don’t want to help someone in your business because of this, then you don’t need to own a business. You can’t say you don’t discriminate, but…”
Other supporters of the ordinance said it sends a safe message to young people who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts because they don’t feel safe.
“We have many youth that are being bullied because they are not in a community they feel is inclusive and safe,” said Rosanne Klarer. “If passing this can trickle down to our youth and schools and maybe less bullying and maybe incidents of suicide would go down for the LGBTQ students. That is the message we need to send to our youth. We love you for who you are and we are not making judgments.”
Prather explained how city leaders believe the court cases clarify situations for businesses.
“If you are business owner and asked to create content that goes against beliefs you can refuse to make that content. If I ask for you to make a wedding cake for me and my husband and put two men on the cake, you can refuse to make the cake. If I come in and ask for a birthday cake for a party I am going to with my husband and you refuse, that is against the law, and it should be,” he said.
Councilwoman Karen Tingle-Sames asked about frivolous complaints.
“There are frivolous cases attacking Christians. They are drug through the court system and some are frivolous. How do you prevent that stuff ? That is the biggest concern,” she said. Prather said business can be sued at any time under the current protected classes, and when they have looked at data at the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, few cases involve these two classes and Golden said most complaints involve employment.
“So why is it necessary. And this isn’t going to stop people from just being rude,” Tingle-Sames said.
If this were to pass, as the ordinance is currently written, complaints would be heard in Lexington. Some residents wanted to know how much that could cost the city, and Tingle-Sames said she did not want cases heard in Lexington.
“If this were to pass, I am adamant that it not go to Lexington,” she said. “Lexington is a total different type of community than what we are. I wouldn’t want our people to go there. They are not used to our citizens, and have different laws. Our people need to be in front of our people.”
Lusby-Mitchell said she had been hearing from people on both sides throughout the process.
“Someone I truly value for years and I had a long talk about this ordinance. This person thinks it is OK to discriminate in housing. That it is OK to turn someone way because of their lifestyle,” she said. “ It shows that more than ever we need this ordinance.”
Steve MCClain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.