Stephanie Grace: Tolerance wins the argument

Wednesday’s emotional hearing on whether Baton Rouge should adopt a “fairness ordinance” to ban discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people featured a number of mind-blowing moments.

There was the rousing appeal to the city’s better, more tolerant nature from legendary LSU basketball coach Dale Brown.

There was the sudden reversal from the Rev. Reginald Pitcher, after he listened to his own words on the prior day’s Jim Engster radio show on WRKF. Pitcher concluded that his initial opposition dishonored the legacy of the civil rights movement, and he took to the Metro Council mic to endorse the ordinance.

There was the intensely graphic description of how AIDS is transmitted through anal sex, delivered by Jere Milelli, a physician and pastor at Christian Life Fellowship.

And as he ran out the meeting clock rather than allow a vote he knew his side would lose, there were a couple of simple and obvious admonitions from councilman and ordinance backer John Delgado, jarring only in contrast to opponents’ pleas.

“This is not a church council. This is a city council,” he said. “This is not about the Bible. It’s about discrimination.”

But none of that topped the straight-faced assertion by the Louisiana Family Forum’s Kathleen Benfield that, unlike African-Americans before the civil rights movement, the people who’d be protected under the ordinance do not lack for political influence. In fact, Benfield argued, “you will find that the homosexual lobby in this country is one of the most politically powerful in our country today.”

Really? So says a leader in what may well be the “most politically powerful” lobby in the state of Louisiana?

Let’s put aside the part about the rest of the country for a moment and consider the two groups’ track records here at home, which, after all, is where the ordinance would apply.

The Family Forum helped kill similar anti-discrimination bills dealing with housing during the last legislative session, arguing that only “morally neutral” characteristics are worthy of protection.

It successfully leaned on state lawmakers during this past session to keep in place a patently unconstitutional ban on sodomy, even after the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office was caught arresting people under the unenforceable law. It also successfully lobbied the Metro Council to reject a resolution supporting the repeal effort, despite the embarrassing headlines the sting spurred nationwide.

In past sessions, it’s helped kill efforts to allow same-sex couples who adopt children to list both parents’ names on Louisiana birth certificates.

And, of course, it’s pushed hard to shore up the council majority’s staunch resistance to the fairness ordinance itself, despite credible warnings that the failure to enact protections in housing, employment and public accommodations hurts business recruitment and the city’s image as a modern, welcoming place — and despite an oft-cited poll showing that 62 percent of residents support the measure.

The Family Forum’s influence pops up regularly in other areas as well, including teaching of creationism in schools — that 1981 law also was found unconstitutional and also is still on the books, thanks in part to the group’s efforts.

In fact, Family Forum leader Gene Mills is one of the few Louisianans who seems to still have the ear of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who routinely sides with the group’s objectives and who recently cited its opposition in his veto of an otherwise popular bill to create a legal framework for surrogate births — despite language restricting the bill’s application to opposite-sex married couples.

As for victories by the supposedly powerful “homosexual lobby”? Well, there are anti-discrimination measures on the books in New Orleans, not surprisingly, and Shreveport, impressively. And that’s about it.

Granted, Benfield has a point that those who favor laws protecting gay, lesbian and transgender people have had better luck elsewhere in the country.

But it’s not because they’re good lobbyists. It’s because people like Brown, along with the business and religious leaders who packed the meeting Wednesday, aren’t staying silent. It’s because people like Pitcher are searching their souls and changing their minds; there are many stories like his, but when is the last time you heard of a conversion in the other direction? It’s because the argument for tolerance is winning the day, all over the place.

And one clear message from the crowd is that it’s happening here, too. The power differential still exists, obviously, and the Family Forum and its allies effectively won yet another round Wednesday. But they won’t be able to hold the line forever.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.