Berea plan to create human rights commission criticized as inadequate

It doesn't address Gender ID, sexual orientation

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJuly 20, 2011 

BEREA — A proposed ordinance creating a human rights commission in this Madison County city would endeavor to eliminate religious, racial, sex, age and physical-disability discrimination, but it does not mention discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The omission disappointed people at Tuesday night's Berea City Council meeting who had hoped it would include language for gay, lesbian or transgender people. The council gave the ordinance a first reading but did not vote on it. A second reading and vote were not scheduled.

Meta Mendel-Reyes voiced her disappointment to the council after the ordinance was read publicly by City Attorney J.T. Gilbert.

"I can be protected because I am a woman, I can be protected because I'm Jewish, I can be protected because I'm old, but I can't be protected because I'm a lesbian?" Mendel-Reyes asked. "What it sounds like to me is that the council wants this issue to go away."

The city held public forums this year on whether the city should have a human rights commission and whether that commission should have "extended jurisdiction" to cover sexual orientation.

Mendel-Reyes asked whether the city council at a later date would consider a fairness ordinance — such as those in Lexington, Louisville and Covington — that would protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations.

"Is that the end of it? Is that the end of the fairness ordinance?" she asked the council. "If this goes through, does that mean you will no longer consider a fairness ordinance?"

Mayor Steve Connelly responded that Berea does not have a human rights commission. Connelly said the commission "will be in position to monitor activities in our community" that would include discrimination against gays and transgender people.

And city council member Truman Fields said the ordinance could be amended later to include gays, lesbians and the transgendered.

But those answers didn't please Mendel-Reyes.

"I'm very troubled by the fact that my area of discrimination — and I have been discriminated against in terms of medical benefits in this city — is not good enough, not worthy enough to be considered a form of discrimination," Mendel-Reyes said.

David Shroyer, a member of Bereans for Fairness, said "our position has to be going forward that we are going to strongly support and rally for a fairness ordinance. ... We certainly support everything that's in the human rights commission proposal. It's just that not enough is in it."

The ordinance presented Tuesday was the recommendation of a committee chaired by Fields. He and council member Billy Wagers presented the ordinance at a council work session held before the regular meeting.

City council member Richard Bellando wondered aloud during the work session whether the council was opening itself to criticism by not including language for gays and transgendered people.

"That's such a volatile part of this whole thing," Bellando said. "All I'm saying is, will people see this as backpedaling, or will they see it as a real, honest commitment by this council to move forward in the area of human rights?"

"I imagine that people will see it differently," Connelly said.

In addition, Connelly said, there is an opportunity for Berea to have an interlocal agreement with Richmond and Madison County to establish a countywide human rights commission. Versailles, Midway and Woodford County have had such an interlocal agreement since 1995.

City council member Violet Farmer said the ordinance would be "a good first step."

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