Debate about human rights panel tests Berea's tradition of openness

'this issue has torn this town apart'

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJuly 31, 2011 

BEREA — For this Madison County city with a legacy of diversity, the debate on whether to extend discrimination protections to gays and lesbians has been vigorous and arduous.

"I made the statement ... when this thing came up that everybody is going to be mad, and that's probably the way it's turned out," said Berea City Council member Billy Wagers.

The discussion has been continuing since May and June, when the city of 13,500 residents held two public forums on whether to propose an ordinance establishing a human rights commission, a body set up to investigate, promote and protect human rights.

Berea, named for the biblical town mentioned in Acts whose populace accepted the gospel message "with great eagerness," has forged ahead on human-rights issues long before many other cities. And that's what makes the present debate painful for people like Violet Farmer, the longest-serving member of city council.

"Berea is noted for being open and accepting of all kinds of diversity, from the beginning of Berea College," Farmer said. "But this issue has torn this town apart, and that breaks my heart because I love Berea and I just see such division among people. People on both sides of the issue have dug in for the long haul, and they've become polarized. It's a very volatile situation."

The debate has centered on whether a human rights commission should include alleged discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity among the matters it would investigate. Sexual orientation refers to which gender one is attracted to, while gender identity refers to whether one identifies with his or her birth gender.

On July 19, Berea City Council introduced an ordinance to start a human rights commission that did not include sexual orientation or gender identity. That disappointed those who want a full-fledged fairness ordinance — a separate measure that specifically would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and accommodations. Among them was retired newspaper editor Guy Townsend.

"The entire country needs to include sexual orientation in among the protected classes like race, gender, age and things of that sort," Townsend said. "If this country stands for fairness, then we ought to be for that."

Townsend suspects that the ordinance does not include sexual orientation or gender identity because the council sought a compromise to appeal to the broadest segment of support.

"This gave them a way of giving a little bit to everybody," Townsend said. "There are some members of the commission who truly believe this is the right thing to do."

Others welcomed the proposal as a move in the right direction because Berea has no human rights commission now to investigate reports of any discrimination, including those based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age or physical disability.

And still others, like retiree Jack Hall, see the creation of a human rights commission as another example of intrusive government.

"We have enough laws on the books for anti-discrimination — everything from fair housing to work laws to rent laws," Hall said. "If the anti-discrimination laws served their purpose we wouldn't need any more, because we've got enough now to float a boat, and I just think it's an exercise in futility."

Two-stage approach for fairness possible

Public reaction to the proposal on the table runs the gamut, said the Rev. Kent Gilbert, pastor of Berea's Union Church.

"Those in favor (of a fairness ordinance) think it's not enough. Those opposed think it's too much," he said.

Gilbert said his personal preference is that the council would "do the right thing" and pass an ordinance that includes sexual orientation.

At present, there are 23 local human rights commissions in Kentucky. Some have jurisdictions that cover only a city, such as Richmond, while others are countywide, such as the one that covers Versailles, Midway and Woodford County.

The Berea debate has been muddied somewhat because many people speak of a "fairness ordinance" when talking about the current proposal. But a fairness ordinance has not been proposed in Berea, although some city council members have indicated that it might come later or that language including sexual orientation might be added to the ordinance for a human rights commission, if it should pass.

"We're going to take first things first, and that's the human rights commission," Wagers said.

For that reason, even though there's no guarantee that a fairness ordinance is imminent, fairness supporters have expressed support for the current proposal.

David Shroyer, a member of Bereans for Fairness, said people with whom he's talked seem to regard the proposal as "a big step, but it's not nearly enough." Shroyer said he takes the council members at their word that a fairness ordinance will come.

"We feel they are committed to fairness," Shroyer said.

Chris Hartman of the Kentucky Statewide Fairness Coalition said that alliance of like-minded organizations sees Berea's two-step approach — a human rights commission first and then a fairness ordinance — to be "very reasonable."

"We do think that's a very positive first step," Hartman said.

Meanwhile, the Family Foundation of Kentucky is happy that Berea has not proposed an outright fairness ordinance, said Andrew Walker, a policy analyst for the organization that advocates social conservatism.

Homosexuality is "a lifestyle that most Kentuckians don't agree with," Walker said.

If it were to pass a fairness ordinance, Berea would be the smallest city in Kentucky to do so. Only Louisville, Lexington and Covington — the state's largest and second- and fifth-largest cities — have passed such ordinances.

The City of Henderson in Western Kentucky passed a fairness ordinance in 1999 but repealed it in 2001 when a new commission was elected.

The Richmond Human Rights Commission has encouraged the City of Richmond, the Madison County seat, to pass a fairness ordinance, but the city commission that took office in January has not been inclined to do so.

While some see a fairness ordinance as protecting only gays and lesbians, supporters say an ordinance typically also protects heterosexuals who are erroneously labeled as gay or lesbian and discriminated against because of that label. It also would also heterosexual employees from sexual harassment by gay or lesbian supervisors or co-workers.

Diversity a hallmark of Berea College

Berea's history of openness to diversity has been frequently referenced in the current debate.

Berea College obtained its charter in 1859, but the Civil War broke out before the school could open, and no classes were held until 1866, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia. Enrollment that first academic year totaled 187 — 96 black students and 91 whites, according to the school's own history.

The college was started by the Rev. John Fee, an abolitionist minister who had volunteered at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, a recruitment and training camp for black Union soldiers during the Civil War. At the end of the war, Fee invited many blacks to settle in Berea, promising them an interracial school, among other things.

Berea College operated as the only integrated school in Kentucky until 1904, when the state made it illegal to educate black and white students together. The college challenged the law, but it was upheld in state courts, and, in 1908, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Berea College was not reintegrated until 1950.

In the meantime, Berea College became known as a school that recruited poor Appalachian students, charged no tuition, and required all students to work in a college industry while attending school.

Today, Berea College, a private, independent school, is among the employers and institutions of higher education in the state that offer benefits to employees with domestic partners and forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legal burden on town questioned

Berea city officials say it is premature to include sexual orientation in the ordinance for a human rights commission because Kentucky does not have a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and accommodations.

Creating an additional category of discrimination not recognized by state law means the city would "have to investigate complaints and enforce compliance totally on its own and its cost," according to a committee recommendation to the full Berea City Council.

And that gives council members like Virgil Burnside reason to tread carefully.

Lexington and Louisville have fairness ordinances, "but they also have legal departments. Small towns don't have those things," Burnside said. "So there is some burden on government to take on an added task. ... I think some people wonder how you do that in a small town. Do you have the resources and capabilities?"

In the meantime, the progress of the current proposal will be watched closely by those who live in Berea and elsewhere.

Berea City Council members said a second reading on the ordinance creating a human rights commission might not come until later in August, or possibly even after an Aug. 30 joint meeting with Richmond and Madison County elected officials.

The possibility of creating a human rights commission that would cover Berea, Richmond and Madison County will be discussed at that meeting. Berea Mayor Steve Connelly has expressed support for that route.

Townsend, the retired newspaper editor, said that while the debate has been divisive, it's caused people to pay attention to local government.

"I think apathy is the biggest enemy that democracy faces, ever," he said. "It's kind of caused the City of Berea to look back and reevaluate itself. I think it's becoming increasingly difficult for anybody to be complacent."

In any case, now that the debate has begun, Wagers said there's no turning back.

"It's brought the issue to the forefront, good or bad, and we can't put our heads in the sand and make it go away," Wagers said. "It's got to be addressed. We've gone this far and we've got to see it through one way or another."

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