Council to again consider anti-discrimination measure

The Baton Rouge Metro Council is again contemplating an anti-discrimination measure supported by the gay community, but it’s unclear how the proposal will fare when council members cast their votes.

The “fairness ordinance,” as it has been dubbed by its supporters, seeks to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, sex, veterans status, gender identity or sexual orientation. It doesn’t apply to religious groups, private clubs and restrooms, and those who violate it are given a “good faith” one-time pass before alleged victims of discrimination could bring a lawsuit in district court.

The Advocate polled each of the Metro Council members on the latest incarnation of the proposal. At least four say they need more information about the version scheduled to be taken up July 23, while three came out as strictly opposed to it and two strongly in favor. Three council members didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking their positions, but two of them have expressed some openness to the idea.

So, it’s not a slam dunk either way. For backers, that’s actually good news, and they are hopeful that the ordinance could go through this time around, despite past defeats and deferrals.

“If Baton Rouge wants to be a great city then we have to begin to act like a great city,” said Joe Traigle, a prominent Baton Rouge businessman who is gay and has been a vocal advocate for local laws that would extend protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

With Baton Rouge luring businesses like IBM, which has a company-wide nondiscrimination policy, Traigle said he thinks that the city ordinance would send a message to other businesses, as well as the people they want to hire.

“We know that the best and brightest gravitate toward cities,” Traigle said. “We need to get in that game competitively.”

What’s striking about this proposed law is that it’s actually stronger than ordinances that failed to garner sufficient support from previous councils. In 2007, the Metro Council rejected a non-binding resolution that expressed tolerance for all people. Three years later, sponsors pulled the same measure because of insufficient backing.

Just months ago, Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle — the current ordinance’s sponsor — introduced a similar proposal but with a different enforcement mechanism. She never brought it up for a vote because she said she wanted to address concerns and give it the best possible shot of passing.

Marcelle is quick to point out that her “fairness ordinance” is for everyone — not just the LGBT community.

“It’s not about one particular group — that’s the message I’m trying to send,” she said. “It’s about all people. No one should be discriminated against.”

Those who oppose the measure argue that it’s unnecessary, question whether the types of discrimination it seeks to end are occurring or view it as a stamp of support of the gay and transgender communities that the council shouldn’t offer.

Conservative Christian groups in the past came out as strongly opposed to the proposals. The Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s most influential conservative organization on social issues, didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, but has opposed all past efforts along these lines.

Under the ordinance, gays and lesbians couldn’t be turned away from hotels because of their sexual orientation; transgender people couldn’t be denied employment based solely on their gender identity; and bisexuals couldn’t be denied an apartment based on their sexual orientation, to name a few specific examples.

Many who support the effort say its also about image — showing that Baton Rouge is an inclusive city.

Influential business and civic groups like the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge Area Foundation are supporting the measure, and the move would put Baton Rouge on trend with other cities across the south.

The Shreveport City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in December. New Orleans is the only other Louisiana city with such a law, but several cities in Texas have them, including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and El Paso. And resolutions against LGBT discrimination have been adopted in cities across Mississippi, including Starkville, Oxford and Waveland.

The City Council in Jackson, Mississippi — another southern capital city — recently adopted its own anti-discrimination resolution, expressing support for “equality for all citizens” of the city.

Jackson Councilman Melvin Priester, one of two sponsors of that city’s resolution, said it doesn’t go as far as an ordinance, which he would prefer, but he saw it as a step in the right direction and an opportunity to a send a message to job creators and educated people leaving the south for cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

“I think that — especially those of us in the South — we’re experiencing a brain drain,” he said. “They are seeking cities that are more inclusive.”

With many council members saying they are still investigating the ordinance or not responding to inquiries, any predictions on whether Baton Rouge could follow Jackson’s lead would be premature.

Councilmen Ryan Heck, Joel Boé and Chandler Loupe didn’t respond to emails or calls to their cellphones. Boé’s assistant said he was out of town. Loupe also was out of town, Marcelle said.

Loupe previously told The Advocate that he supports the adoption of an anti-discrimination ordinance, but he wanted to see the specifics.

Marcelle said she also believes she has addressed some of Heck’s concerns and has been told he’s “looking at it.”

Boé has opposed such proposals in the past and is a likely “no” vote.

Also in the “no” camp, telling The Advocate they plan to vote against the proposal: Councilwoman Tara Wicker and Councilmen Buddy Amoroso and Scott Wilson.

“I think that those are already protected in several different ways,” Wicker said.

Amoroso said he remembers the systematic segregation of black people when he was growing up.

?I just don’t see the level of discrimination against the gay community that you saw back then,” he said.

In addition to Marcelle, Councilman John Delgado has been a vocal supporter of the proposal and will be voting in favor of it, he said, though he isn’t sure what the ultimate outcome will be.

“It would only make sense for us to pass it,” he said. “Whether we do things that make sense is beyond my control.”

Delgado said he believes there is growing community support for the measure, and he mentioned a recent letter to the editor written by retired LSU basketball coach Dale Brown that ran in The Advocate.

“The more we bring this forward, the more public support is heard,” Delgado said.

In his open letter, Brown, who coached the Tigers for 25 years, called on East Baton Rouge Parish residents to urge Metro Council members to vote for the ordinance.

Several council members said they need to hear more from the public before making up their minds.

Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she is still weighing the proposal. She has specific questions and wants clarity on a few points but indicated that she’s not opposed to the idea entirely.

“I’m of the opinion that I don’t want to see anybody treated unfairly or unjustly — ever,” she said. “I think it’s going to be an interesting discussion.”

Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards also is a potential swing vote. She said she would wait until a public hearing and debate to determine how to vote.

“It’s my understanding that many of the provisions already exist in the East Baton Rouge Parish policies and procedures,” she said, but emphasized she hasn’t ruled out supporting the measure.

Councilman Trae Welch said he had been busy in court — he’s an attorney and Zachary prosecutor — and had not yet had a chance to review the latest proposal. He previously has said that he would consider voting for one, but he also questioned whether it was necessary.

Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said she has several questions about the latest version. She noted that Marcelle hasn’t talked to her about the specifics of her proposal.

“I don’t know whether or not there is such discrimination,” Banks-Daniel said, so she plans to listen to testimony during a public hearing.

Traigle, the businessman and supporter of the ordinance, said federal law covers discrimination based on race, religion and gender, but a local law is needed to extend those protections to sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It’s a fact of life here in the South that discrimination takes place,” he said.

Baton Rouge drew national attention a year ago when it was revealed that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office was using an outdated state anti-sodomy law to arrest gay men for consenting to sex in sting operations in public parks. District Attorney Hillar Moore III ultimately refused to prosecute the cases, saying no crimes had been committed. The law deputies relied on for their arrests was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court eleven years ago.

The Metro Council earlier this year rejected a non-binding resolution expressing support for a legislative effort to scrub the law from books. The Legislature ultimately didn’t pass that bill.

During the Metro Council meeting on that resolution, several opponents compared the repeal of the anti-sodomy law to repealing human trafficking laws or legalizing drugs. One man, a retired judge, warned the council they would ultimately be judged by a “higher power.”

Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, said the suggestion that the LGBT community is already protected from discrimination is a “fallacy.”

“These protections don’t exist,” she said.

Oakley said many communities are turning to local legal fixes. More than 200 cities and counties have adopted anti-discrimination ordinances — on top of the 18 states that ban LGBT discrimination.

“They get frustrated by the state’s inability to move forward on equal laws for LGBT people,” she said.

Bills proposed earlier this year at the State Capitol that would have barred discrimination in employment and housing were killed or pulled for lack of support early in the session.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.