Last month, for the first time in Bowling Green’s history, a sitting city commissioner proposed a fairness ordinance, which would update the city’s civil rights ordinance to protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
When Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash proposed the ordinance, he was met with deafening silence from the other commissioners. No one would second his motion to simply discuss this long-overdue ordinance.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Bowling Green has long been Kentucky’s largest city without a fairness ordinance. The Bowling Green Human Rights Commission first proposed the idea in 1999 — the same year Lexington and Louisville updated their own civil-rights protections. That year, the local Human Rights Commission began a public discussion on the issue, including testimony from LGBT residents on the need for the ordinance.
The city commission refused to act. In 2012, Bowling Green Fairness began regularly calling on city leaders to discuss the need for a fairness ordinance. Since then, hundreds of supporters have crowded City Hall to seek a dialogue with city leaders, more than 100 Bowling Green businesses joined the Kentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition to support LGBT rights, and more than 1,000 Bowling Green residents petitioned city leaders without response.
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Meanwhile, other Kentucky communities have passed us by.
The tiny Appalachian town of Vicco, our state capital Frankfort, Morehead, Danville and Midway have all passed their own fairness ordinances in the past several years. These laws were met with economic prosperity in many of those cities.
Vicco famously garnered increased tourism and over $100,000 in improved infrastructure. Midway’s Mayor Grayson Vandegrift recently cited a 33 percent increase in occupancy tax and an expected 100 percent job-growth rate since the city updated its civil rights act.
Bowling Green’s proposed fairness ordinance merely updates existing protections with four words — “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” There are hiring exemptions for small employers and religious institutions, housing exemptions for small landlords, and strong protections for clergy, who will never be forced to perform same-gender weddings or otherwise violate their religious beliefs. In fact, the ordinance reiterates Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2013, one of the strongest religious-freedom laws in our country.
Recently, two weeks after Nash’s motion failed, fairness supporters flooded City Hall; 64 people spoke at the public meeting at which no action was taken, with 52 speakers passionately describing their lived experiences with discrimination in Bowling Green.
In a Herald-Leader commentary, Richard Nelson of the Commonwealth Policy Center, who doesn’t call Bowling Green home, commended the city commission for its failure to enact these simple discrimination protections, citing numerous straw-man examples against a fairness ordinance from places like Washington and Idaho.
Nelson, who participated in the public hearing, described the discomfort he felt walking past people in City Hall whose human rights he vocally denounces. That discomfort is nothing compared to the violence, discrimination and shame that his views have perpetrated over decades. Any attempt to equate a perceived burden a fairness ordinance would put on a discriminatory employer or landlord with the pain suffered by LGBTQ Kentuckians, whose very existence is under siege, is wrong and detached from reality.
He and other opponents should listen carefully to the courageous people who shared their lived experiences with discrimination, and they should ask themselves why they continue to argue in favor of inequality for our most vulnerable citizens.
When a third of LGBT youth attempt suicide because of societal rejection, passing a fairness ordinance sends a powerful message to our most vulnerable that their lives matter in Bowling Green and they will be protected from discrimination. It says to everyone that you will be judged based on the quality of your character and your work, not who you are and whom you love.
For those with concerns about a fairness ordinance, we welcome a conversation to promote the mutual understanding and respect that will lead to the elimination of discrimination.
Bowling Green should continue the discussion about updating our civil rights act. We are persistent, we are growing, and we are changing the conversation about rights in ways that should make Nelson and other opponents think twice about why they support legal discrimination in our city.
If we are truly open for business, we need to be a leader. We have everything to gain by being a Bowling Green for everyone.