Fairness must be statewide priority

Kentucky has led the nation in protecting the rights of its citizens.

In 1966, it became the first state below the Mason-Dixon Line to pass a civil rights law, outlawing discrimination based on familial status, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age or disability.

In 1990, Kentucky became one of the very first states to extend employment protections to tobacco users.

Kentucky's lost any chance in being a leader in protecting rights based on sexual orientation or identification. But recent events in our state and nationally should provide the push to add those protections.

The U.S military repealed the ban on gays serving openly in the armed services. The historic move ended almost two decades of the "don't ask don't tell" policy that had required gay service people to lie about themselves.

On the same day, the Berea City Council created a human rights commission for the community. The ordinance did not include protections based on sexual orientation or identity, although some council members said they are willing to do so in the future.

Also last week, in Harlan County two men were charged with attempted murder and two women were charged with complicity to commit attempted murder in an attack the victim says was motivated by his sexual orientation. A statewide advocacy group, concerned that local authorities aren't vigorous in prosecuting crimes against gay people (something the local prosecutor denies), has asked the U.S. Justice Department to get involved.

The fairness ordinances already adopted in Lexington, Louisville and Covington are important and admirable, as is Berea's willingess to consider one.

Most of Kentucky's large employers — Toyota, Lexmark, the public universities, this newspaper, to name a few — already have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

That's all to the good, but it creates a patchwork of fairness islands.

True fairness and equality would mean that anywhere in Kentucky a person could be openly gay or transgendered and not live in fear of being turned aside by a landlord or losing a job.

Recognizing this, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, the agency that enforces the state civil rights law, has reasonably asked that its mandate be expanded to include sexual orientation.

Laws won't change peoples' hearts, or their convictions.

Our constitutions, state and federal, provide profound protections for the right to believe as we choose, and to express those beliefs. But it's important that, as a society, we make it clear that those beliefs can't be used to deny law-abiding people the right to live and work and contribute to their communities.

We won't be first, but we can get it right.