Berea City Council votes to create human rights commission

ordinance does not cover gays; advocates vow to keep up fight

gkocher1@herald-leader.comSeptember 21, 2011 

BEREA — As supporters chanted outside city hall, the Berea City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night to adopt an ordinance creating a human rights commission.

The ordinance calls for the commission to investigate claims of religious, racial, sex, age and physical-disability discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations.

The ordinance does not extend protections to gays, lesbians and transgender people, but two council members said after the vote that an ordinance to include those protections would be proposed later.

Members of Bereans for Fairness said they would continue to push for that next step.

The Rev. Kent Gilbert, pastor of Union Church and a member of Bereans for Fairness, told council members that they would continue to receive plenty of emails.

"I guess I need to say that those emails can't really stop until every citizen is included under every law," Gilbert said.

Shane Morris, an opponent of the ordinance, said people on that side of the issue were taking notice, too.

"I speak to the citizens of Berea tonight," Morris said. "You have seen this vote. ... Next November, they're on record. You need to organize within your churches, within your communities. Knock on doors, register voters. Stand up to this and do not be intimidated."

On the vote to create a human rights commission, council members Truman Fields, Richard Bellando, Billy Wagers, Violet Farmer, Diane Kerby and Virgil Burnside all voted yes. Council member Jerry Little cast the lone "no" vote, and had no comment after the meeting. Council member Glenn Jennings was absent.

After the meeting, Fields and Burnside predicted the council would take up a fairness ordinance, but they differed on a time line.

"We'll see what happens six months or so down the road," Fields said. Asked whether a fairness ordinance would be proposed then, Fields said. "Maybe."

Burnside hedged: "I don't know about six months. I won't put a time line on it."

The ordinance that was passed Tuesday will take effect when it is published in the Berea Citizen next week. Council members were uncertain when appointments for the seven-member commission would be made.

Hundreds of people rallied at Union Church before the council meeting, then marched to city hall with signs and banners and sang This Little Light of Mine. After the ordinance passed, they sang We Shall Overcome on the city hall steps.

Among the marchers was author Silas House, who held a sign with a quote from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California: "Hope will never be silent."

Berea, named for the biblical town mentioned in Acts whose populace accepted the gospel message "with great eagerness," has become divided over whether to extend protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Those on both sides saw the issue as defining the town's identity and what it would tell others about the city of 13,500.

Those at Union Church made repeated references to Berea's history as a place that has pushed for inclusion. Gilbert noted that history in his address to the crowd he estimated at 400:

"When the founders of this town gathered on a hillside — this hillside — and they said, 'We're going to end discrimination and slavery in a country and in a county where it was not only permitted but promoted,' people said, 'You can't do that.' And Bereans said, 'Yes, we can.'"

But opponents of a fairness ordinance, such as Mark Sarver, pastor of Church on the Rock, see it as a departure from the religious tenets that also have defined the community.

"If a fairness act was to get passed in the city of Berea, it's not a step, it's one more huge leap to continuing the moral decay," Sarver said. "Because it's wrong, and that's not my opinion. It's wrong. As far as it affecting Berea and what it's known for, it will be devastating to this town."

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 protect heterosexual employees from sexual harassment by gay or lesbian supervisors or co-workers.

Of the 23 human rights commissions in Kentucky, only those in Lexington, Louisville and Covington have "extended jurisdiction" to enforce discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The others, including one in Richmond, have "standard jurisdiction" that does not have those protections.

The Berea ordinance does not include extended jurisdiction because Berea officials said it would be too costly for the city to investigate and enforce such claims of discrimination.

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