James Gill: Baton Rouge trails on tolerance front

“Baton Rouge is a city filled with caring, compassionate people,” and a poll shows 62 percent in favor of equal rights for gay people.

So says a fact sheet put out by proponents of an ordinance, up for consideration this month, that would ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

But the proposition that all God’s children deserve an even break is not one that Christian firebrands are prepared to accept, and spirited opposition is expected yet again. Only two members of the council have warmly embraced the ordinance, so you wouldn’t want to bet against another defeat.

The council has not only rejected similar legislation, but a few years ago could not even bring itself to “publicize its commitment to diversity and equal opportunity” in a nonbinding resolution. Sure, nonbinding resolutions are a waste of time, but that’s not why the council balked.

A majority evidently accepted the preposterous suggestion, advanced by a protesting preacher, that they were fixing to turn this wholesome burg into a “haven for homosexuals.”

Baton Rouge, according to the fact sheet, is behind the times, because New Orleans and Shreveport have adopted ordinances banning discrimination against gays, while “98 percent of Fortune 500 companies — including IBM, which is building a facility here — have adopted similar protections for their employees.” If Baton Rouge is “to compete and attract large corporations,” we need to “make it clear we believe in basic fairness for all.” Jackson and a few other Mississippi cities also have endorsed that principle.

If the tide is running in favor of more enlightened attitudes, however, Baton Rouge is hardly alone in resisting it. Congress has been refusing for 20 years to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Gay rights bills in the state legislature drop like flies yearly, and the Louisiana Family Forum will always be in prayerful attendance to ensure they continue to do so.

Council members opposed to the proposed ordinance nevertheless argue that it is unnecessary. Tara Wicker, for example, says gay people are “already protected in several different ways,” while Buddy Amoroso says he has never seen them victimized as he remembers black people were under Jim Crow, Some government agencies do have equal-treatment policies, but there can be no shortage of gay people willing to explain that the law fails to protect them in several different ways. And, although it is true that we don’t have “heterosexuals only” water fountains, prejudice can be just as pernicious under the surface.

Most of us don’t have a personal stake in what happens to the ordinance, but equal protection is supposed to be bedrock in America. Christians who believe homosexuals are sinners may surely rely on God to mete out appropriate punishment in the long run.

The ordinance in any case is mild enough. It would ban discrimination on account of “gender identity or sexual orientation” but would not criminalize it. Civil suits would be authorized only after “good faith” efforts to resolve a complaint failed.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, in his latest attempt to establish his right-wing credentials as a presidential candidate, denounced anti-discrimination laws as part of a supposed “silent war on religious liberty,” but that charge cannot be leveled against this ordinance. It would exempt “religious organizations and educational institutions operated by religious organizations.”

It would not apply to companies with fewer than 10 employees, to private clubs or “owner-occupied single-family homes.”

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans is considering the constitutionality of Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage. If he strikes it down, discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations will seem all the more outdated.

Baton Rouge has just scored a puny seven out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which assesses the legal rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in 291 American cities.

Passage of this ordinance would presumably boost Baton Rouge’s score, but it is unlikely that council members lie awake nights fretting about that.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.