After 15 years, lawmakers hold hearing on bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation

jcheves@herald-leader.comMarch 5, 2014 

The Kentucky State Capitol building in Frankfort.

SAM RICHE — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

FRANKFORT — For the first time in 15 years, backers of a bill that would extend statewide civil rights protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people won a legislative hearing Wednesday.

But that's all they won. No vote is scheduled.

The House Judiciary Committee heard several people testify in favor of House Bill 171, which would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the protected classes listed in the state's anti-discrimination laws for public accommodations, employment, housing and financial transactions. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights can investigate discrimination complaints.

Six cities in Kentucky, representing about a quarter of the state's population, have enacted local "fairness laws" — Lexington, Louisville, Covington, Frankfort, Morehead and Vicco — but there is no statewide protection.

Kile Nave, a suburban Louisville police sergeant who was improperly fired in 2012 for being gay, told the House panel he wouldn't have been vindicated unless the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission had the authority to intervene under the local fairness law. State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, talked about her gay brother, who attempted suicide as a young man because he felt reviled.

"He said he couldn't live with the possibility of being gay, he was treated so poorly," said Marzian, the lead sponsor of HB 171.

After about 15 minutes of discussion, House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, thanked the bill's supporters for their "moving" words. Then the committee turned to the next bill on its agenda, dealing with farms at state prisons.

The General Assembly is not yet ready to vote on a civil rights bill covering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, Tilley said later, adding that he supports HB 171. The bill might be called again at a future date, he said.

"There still is concern among members on both sides of the aisle. This hearing was an attempt to dispel some of that concern," Tilley said.

State Rep. Joseph Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, later said he would not support the bill.

"I wasn't listening to the testimony and I haven't really read the bill," said Fischer, a vice chairman of the House committee. "I think the basic concern has to do with extending civil rights protection to cover gender identity. It's an idea that's pretty controversial because, unlike the other protected classes, some people consider that to not be an immutable characteristic."

Outside the hearing room, as dozens of fairness-law supporters headed back to their cars, some asked whether they ever will see movement in Frankfort. They said Kentucky had to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere for 24 hours last week, after a federal judge's order, until Gov. Steve Beshear won a delay and then announced an appeal.

"There needs to be protection for Kentuckians who don't live in one of the six cities with a local ordinance. It's disappointing that our legislators can hear clear evidence that this law is needed, and yet they still don't act," said Jeff Rodgers, an arts administrator from Louisville.

However, Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said Wednesday's hearing was progress because past versions of HB 171 were never even discussed in a committee.

"At the very least, there was conversation, and that ultimately engenders support," Hartman said. "Without conversation, the bill would ... languish for the next 15 years."

Speaking to the House panel, Covington Mayor Sherry Carran said her Northern Kentucky city enacted a fairness ordinance and domestic-partner benefits for its employees in same-sex relationships. This has not led to frivolous lawsuits or other complications, Carran said. In fact, she said, it made the city more attractive to first-rate employers and workers who value diversity.

Ralph de Chabert, chief diversity officer at Brown-Forman Corp. in Louisville, told lawmakers it's good business to respect all customers and employees, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The distiller, which has 4,000 employees worldwide, has won multiple awards for its corporate policies on "LGBT" workplace equality and customer focus.

"There's a market that can be mined," de Chabert said after the hearing. "It's no different than looking at the African-American market and the Latino market. It just doesn't make sense to ignore that opportunity."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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