When the abolitionist minister John G. Fee founded Berea in 1854, he named it after a biblical town where the people "received the word with all readiness of mind." Equality became the community's watchword the following year when Berea College was founded as the first Southern university to welcome women and African-Americans.
Today, nearly 160 years later, the residents of Fee's town are debating whether to embrace another word, one that speaks to the very essence of their heritage — fairness.
Fairness is a word familiar to all Bereans and Kentuckians, a value we were raised to emulate, a quality that is supposed to mark how we treat others in both our business and personal relations. With that legacy, some have argued, a fairness ordinance extending protections to gay and transgender people is unnecessary, as basic human respect and acceptance is a given.
But the vitriolic, hurtful rhetoric spewed last month at a public forum on the proposal provides sufficient evidence that the potential for discrimination exists and merits legislation.
The fairness ordinance being considered by members of the Berea City Council is simple and clear cut: It would protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations with exemptions for small private businesses and faith-based institutions; and it would establish a local human rights commission.
These are not special rights. They are equal protections acknowledging that everyone deserves a safe place to work, live and eat. Without such provisions, any person perceived to be gay or transgender could be fired, evicted or denied seating in a restaurant or public venue — basic freedoms enjoyed by heterosexual Bereans and Kentuckians.
If passed, Berea would become the fourth city in the state with a fairness law, joining the ranks of Lexington, Louisville and Covington.
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Schapiro Group found that 83 percent of Kentuckians support anti-discrimination legislation. In Berea, a local grassroots organization has sprouted up in favor of fairness, representing a cross-section of the town's vibrant community of local artists, business people, religious and civic leaders and other residents.
Dozens came together at a press conference last week for the official launch of Bereans For Fairness, gathering on the steps of Union Church and facing the town square in a symbolic show of solidarity.
"We are children of a loving God," said Ed McCurley, pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Berea. "Jesus did not have a list of exceptions. The way we show love for God is in the way we treat each other. These are the values upon which our community was founded."
Adanma Barton, assistant professor of theater at Berea College, concurred. "I have students who identify as gay and I'm here for them. The council should set the standard of respect for our community and pass this ordinance."
Berea has long been the moral compass of the commonwealth, a beacon of progressive values that emphasize equality and dignity for all. Adoption of the fairness ordinance would be yet another watershed in the community's long history of social justice, one that includes advocating for equality on behalf of African-Americans, women and the disadvantaged.
Fairness is not simply a word to be debated. As John G. Fee realized so many years ago, it is a word to be received, a belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being — no exceptions. Fairness is a Berea value.
Jason Howard, essayist and co-author of Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, lives in Berea.