Madison County

Berea discusses idea of law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation

BEREA — A crowd that spilled out into the hallways gathered Tuesday night to voice opinions on the possibility of an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the city of Berea.

A committee of three members of the Berea City Council listened for more than an hour and a half as dozens of residents offered comments — sometimes vehemently — on a not-yet-drafted fairness ordinance.

Councilman Truman Fields said the committee will likely hold one or two more public forums before deciding whether to bring such an ordinance before the full city council.

Lexington, Louisville and Covington are the only cities in the state that have such ordinances, a representative of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission said.

Several of the speakers opposing the possible ordinance were pastors.

Among them was Jeff Osborne, pastor of Berea Evangelistic Church.

"I'm not aware of intolerance," he said. "I think it's more about favoritism. You're imposing the ideas of a few people upon the rights of others. ... It's going to hurt our communities. It's going to hurt our families. It's not a good thing."

Russ Westbrook, pastor of New Hope Reformed Church, said the proposal "strikes at the ground rules of freedom."

"Freedom isn't fair, and a stifling fairness isn't free," he said.

Jaime Morris said that if a gay couple wanted to rent a residence from her, she should have the right to refuse.

"I have two small children," she said. "I should be able to say 'no.'"

But several speakers said such an ordinance could be good for attracting industry.

"This is one of the things that they check to see that we have," said longtime resident Martha Schafer. "It isn't going to attract homosexuals. ... It's a no-brainer."

In response to comments from those who said they were not aware of discrimination, Schafer said, "There is nastiness. Believe me, I've seen it and heard it."

Gina Chamberlain agreed.

"There is discrimination that takes place on a regular basis in many thousands of small ways. ... We're basically saying it's OK to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation," she said. "All people are equal and should have the same opportunities."

At Tuesday night's meeting, the agenda included questions such as, "Does Berea need a local Human Rights Commission to educate the public on civil rights?" and "Should Berea extend the jurisdiction of a local Human Rights Commission to include discrimination based on sexual orientation?" and "Have you witnessed any incidents of discrimination in Berea?"

"I know this is very controversial," Fields told the audience as the meeting began. "The committee up here, our mind's not made up — at least mine's not."