Danville tentatively approves fairness ordinance; 2nd vote required

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMay 12, 2014 

DANVILLE — The Danville City Commission approved the first reading Monday night of an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The vote was 4-1.

The commission must approve a second reading before the ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, is adopted. The second reading is scheduled May 27.

The ordinance becomes law once it is published in the local newspaper. If it becomes law, Danville would become the seventh Kentucky city to have a fairness ordinance. Lexington, Louisville, Covington, Frankfort, Morehead and Vicco in Perry County have passed similar measures.

Commissioners Kevin Caudill, Paul Smiley, Paige Stevens and James Atkins voted for the ordinance. Mayor Bernie Hunstad, who has opposed the ordinance since it was proposed last year, was the lone "no" vote.

Hunstad has said the ordinance was unnecessary because there are laws that protect people from discrimination. He said at the April 14 commission meeting that there was "no conclusive evidence that we have this problem in our community. ... There's no evidence that anyone has been damaged here."

Before Monday's vote, the commission met behind closed doors for about 35 minutes. One item up for discussion during that secret session apparently was "proposed litigation" against the ordinance by Sunrise Children's Services, an agency affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention that has a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Danville for boys ages 6 to 18.

John Sheller, an attorney for Sunrise, told the commissioners the agency was prepared to file a lawsuit challenging the ordinance once it takes effect. Sheller also said Sunrise, which employs 50 people at its Woodlawn campus in Danville, was prepared to move elsewhere if the ordinance became law. He mentioned that another facility moved to Bullitt County after Jefferson County passed a fairness ordinance in 1999.

About 80 percent of Sunrise's $22 million in statewide revenue comes from state and federal governments; the agency has contracts with those governments to provide services for at-risk children, Sheller said. Sunrise also receives donations from Kentucky Baptist congregations, although Sheller said the agency was not owned or controlled by the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Sheller called the ordinance an "existential threat" to the Woodlawn campus. He said the lawsuit had been prepared and copies were in the commissioners' information packets.

If Sunrise were to lose the lawsuit, the city would lose the jobs and services provided by the Woodlawn campus, he said.

"I don't say that to make a threat, but I say that to make you aware that that is what has to happen," Sheller said.

He argued that the city commission was exceeding its authority by including classes of people that are not recognized by state anti-discrimination laws.

There is no state law that extends civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The Judiciary Committee in the state House of Representatives held a hearing on such a bill in March, but there was no vote.

Danville's ordinance includes some exemptions, such as for religious institutions. However, during a work session April 28, the commission added that the exemption was null "when such institutions and organizations receive the majority of its annual funding from any federal, state or local government body or agency, or any combination thereof ... ."

Several citizens, including attorney Mark Morgan, asked the commission to delete a sentence from an exemption paragraph that said a person's "sincerely held religious belief may be established by the execution of a sworn affidavit."

Morgan and others said that only made the ordinance a target for litigation because it goes beyond state legislation. City Attorney Stephen Dexter defended the wording; on a separate vote, the commissioners kept the wording.

Others, like Tom Lane, pastor of Cornerstone Assembly of God, urged the commission not to approve the ordinance because it would "wield a club of intimidation against Christian business owners."

But Jane Brantley expressed gratitude for the commission's vote.

"I am almost overcome with emotion tonight and thank you from the bottom of my heart for you hard work, your courage, your perseverance, your willingness to listen to the community ... ," she said. "I thank you."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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