BR movers and shakers backing fairness ordinance

Volunteer Activist Elizabeth Sammons
Volunteer Activist Elizabeth Sammons

Tired of the Metro Council’s history of inaction on measures that aim to promote tolerance, a group of influential Baton Rouge business and civic leaders has stepped into the spotlight to press for passage of a local law banning discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people.

Over the past several years, the Metro Council has uncomfortably faced votes promoting tolerance of the LGBT community. And time and time again, under intense pressure from well-organized Christian conservative groups, the council has voted against the measures.

On Wednesday, the Metro Council will again be asked to vote on an ordinance that will impact LGBT people in the capital city. The proposal, which is similar to laws passed in Shreveport and New Orleans, is a local law that bans discrimination of gays, lesbians and transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodations.

LGBT allies supporting the proposal say they are done being part of what they describe as the silent majority as their opponents flood elected officials with emails and phone calls. A group of LGBT allies, that started a campaign called “Be Fair Baton Rouge,” says that this time they intend to be the loudest voices in the council chamber.

“It’s time we embrace change. It’s time we move forward and say that all citizens are welcome here and we are a tolerant society,” said one of the group’s leaders, Elizabeth Querbes Sammons, a vice president at Merrill Lynch and community activist.

Sammons founded the Southern Women Action Network, which helped victims of Hurricane Katrina victims. She is working with other civic leaders, including attorney Paul West, a former Baton Rouge Area Foundation Board member who has served as president of the Shaw Center and Rotary Club; John Paul Funes, president and CEO of the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation; and Jennifer Eplett Reilly, who co-founded City Year and New Schools for Baton Rouge. Reilly is married to Sean Reilly, CEO of Lamar Advertising, one of Baton Rouge’s largest private businesses.

The group is pitching the ordinance as a pro-business measure that is important for Baton Rouge to pass to stay economically competitive.

“It’s about getting businesses to come to Baton Rouge, it’s about getting people to come to Baton Rouge,” Funes said. “In today’s climate, we have to distinguish ourselves, and we need something on the record, particularly because we are in the Deep South.”

Supporters of the fairness ordinance include the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The boards of both organizations voted to endorse the ordinance.

The two groups, which have been known to influence local policy, have previously offered mostly tacit support of pro-LGBT measures while watching quietly from the sidelines as the battles played out in the council’s chambers.

Last week, BRAF announced results of a poll it commissioned showing that 62 percent of respondents supported the proposed ordinance. BRAF has also deployed its own staff member, John Carpenter, to help organize and work with the group supporting the measure.

“In all honesty, I do think the last effort infuriated and embarrassed a lot of local community leaders and they stepped up,” said John Davies, BRAF president. “There was a lot of email going around after as I understand it, calling for action, saying we’ve got to fix this so we’re not seen as a close-minded and unfair community in terms of policy.”

Only five months ago the Metro Council rejected a symbolic gesture to endorse proposed state legislation to remove anti-sodomy laws from the books that were deemed unconstitutional, and therefore, unenforceable. The laws got the Sheriff’s Office into trouble because deputies were using them to unlawfully arrest gay men in parks for consenting to sex.

Supporters of the ordinance have worked quickly to rally support over the past couple weeks. They created a Facebook group that garnered more than 2,000 “likes” in two weeks. Leaders are on a media blitz that has included TV interviews and taking out a full-page ad in The Advocate.

Council members have already been flooded with emails asking them to support the measure, as supporters promote a letter-writing campaign. The group also has used its broad network of political connections to identify the friends and mentors of some council members who have reached out individually to pressure them to support the ordinance.

Sammons said supporters of the ordinance, which was sponsored by Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, plan to pack the council chambers on Wednesday. Sammons promised that some speakers would be representing large businesses in Baton Rouge.

But despite its work and influence, the group is likely to face an uphill battle. The Louisiana Family Forum is expected to send out an email blast to its supporters in the days before the vote, asking them to fill the inboxes and pack the council chambers to oppose the measure. Traditionally, this method has generated hundreds of emails for council members ahead of a vote that concerns LGBT issues.

Gene Mills, president of the Family Forum, was out of town and did not return a phone call.

However, the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, led by nationally known Christian conservative Tony Perkins, sent an email blast to its following, backing the Family Forum and urging followers to email council members asking them to vote no on the proposed ordinance.

“This homosexual affirmation ordinance is part of the agenda of local and national homosexual activists groups, and it will deprive Baton Rouge residents their right to control their property, their lives and their business by elevating legally undefined ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to the level of a protected class,” Perkins wrote.

He asserted that the religious freedom of Christians has been violated by similar ordinances across the country by “requiring them to engage in activities contrary to their moral and ethical principles.”

A handful of council members have already gone on record saying they plan to vote against the measure.

Councilman Ryan Heck said he was being aggressively lobbied to support the ordinance but could not support it in its current form. He declined further comment but detailed his arguments in a Facebook post.

“This ordinance is being touted by BRAF, BRAC and others as good for economic development and good for Baton Rouge,” he wrote. “I couldn’t disagree more. This ordinance, if passed, opens the doors for lawyers and serial victims to seek retribution against good (and bad) people in the community. This is a job killer, not a job creator.”

Supporters of the ordinance note that in cities with similar laws, discrimination claims based on sexual orientation are about 4 percent of the total number of employment-based discrimination claims, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Councilman Buddy Amoroso, who has said he intends to vote against the ordinance, said he simply doesn’t agree that gays, lesbians and transgender people are an economically or socially disadvantaged group in need of governmental protections, in the way that black people have been in the past.

“I look at what African-Americans had to go through and I look back at my life and remember white-only restrooms as a child,” he said. “And I just don’t see that in the gay community.”

Mayor-President Kip Holden declined comment for this story, said he would make his position known at the Metro Council meeting on Wednesday at City Hall, which starts at 4 p.m.

Brad Clark, who works with the Human Rights Coalition’s program targeting states in the Deep South, said these local ordinances are especially important in states where there are no state protections, like Louisiana.

“The reality is that in many of the states throughout the country, people are living without any protections for themselves in terms of the work place,” he said. “Millions of LGBT people can be fired simply for who they are, who they love. These ordinances provide critical protections.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/