Metro Council meeting ends without LGBT non-discrimination ordinance vote

After hours of passionate speeches from members of the public about a proposed ban on discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the Baton Rouge Metro Council abruptly ended the meeting Wednesday without voting.

Councilman John Delgado, a supporter of the ordinance, filibustered the remaining three minutes of the meeting, essentially blocking a last-minute vote. He later said the measure was doomed to fail, and that he would prefer that members of the Metro Council have an opportunity to voice their opinions before casting votes.

Metro Council meetings by law can last only until 8:30 p.m. and speakers talked until about 8:27 p.m., when Delgado began his brief oratory.

The next Metro Council meeting is in three weeks on Aug. 13, which is when the ordinance could next be up for a vote.

Immediately after the meeting, Delgado announced a proposal to take the issue directly to the voters. With the proposed ordinance unlikely to pass, he called on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender allies to sign a petition for a referendum to change the city-parish’s plan of government to mandate a fairness policy.

To get on the ballot, the petition would require about 8,500 signatures, which is 10 percent of the turnout of the last parish-wide election.

This idea would codify an existing executive order signed by Mayor-President Kip Holden that says the city-parish will not discriminate against LGBT people. But an executive order can lapse once a mayor leaves office.

Unlike the measure under consideration by the Council on Wednesday, Delgado’s referendum would not apply to most private businesses, although it would extend to those that contract with the city-parish. The mandate also would extend to the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and other independently elected parish officials.

The Metro Council has previously mulled proposals to affirm support for Baton Rouge’s gay and lesbian community, but those nonbinding resolutions failed to muster sufficient support from council members.

The ordinance under consideration Wednesday was actually a stronger piece of legislation than those failed efforts, banning discrimination of LGBT people in areas of housing, employment and public accommodations. Proponents emphasized that the law also outlawed discrimination against scores of other classes, including race, religion, disabilities, gender and veteran status. People who felt they had been victims of discrimination could file a lawsuit in state district court.

Emotional speakers, both for and against, crowded the council chambers to debate the proposal, which had been dubbed the “fairness ordinance” by supporters. They spoke for more than three hours.

Supporters argued adoption of these kinds of protections would be both favorable to economic development in Baton Rouge, as well as simply affirm the dignity of all its residents. Opponents called it an affront to their religious freedom that also would make business owners vulnerable to lawsuits.

Among the supporters were many prominent local business and community leaders, including executives for Lamar Advertising, Albemarle Corp. and Chase Bank, who each urged the council to support the measure to help them stay competitive and recruit top talent across the country.

“We recruit here in Louisiana and nationwide,” said Kevin Reilly, chairman of Lamar Advertising. “These are bright and curious people not only interested in schools and neighborhoods, but also interested in quality of life.”

Former LSU coach Dale Brown, who is credited with integrating the basketball team, recounted stories about threats he received and opposition he faced when he allowed black players on the team.

“As a coach, I always said, ‘Don’t let being good stop you from being better.’ Passing this fairness ordinance will make us better,” he said. “I hope you all have the moral courage to do what is morally right.”

Religious leaders supporting the ordinance said it was a Christian value to love and respect one another despite differences.

“This is about fairness, this is about human dignity and it’s about respect,” said the Rev. Patti Snyder, pastor of the University Presbyterian Church. “We pride ourselves on our hospitality, but our hospitality is only on the surface. This council has yet to make our hospitality official.”

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, told the Metro Council that the ordinance would spawn a host of legal problems, adding that it was an attack on the religious freedom of business owners.

“I have a healthy distrust for this pledge: If you like your religious freedom, you can keep your religious freedom,” he said.

Kathleen Benfield, the legislative director for the Louisiana Family Forum, also argued that supporters of the ordinance failed to prove the point that gay people suffered from “economic disparity or political powerlessness.”

“The homosexual lobby is one of the most politically powerful,” she said.

Almost all of the opponents of the ordinance said it flew in the face of Christian teachings, while rejecting the notion that opposing the measure made them intolerant or bigots.

“It’s a matter of conscience,” said Tommy Middleton, executive director of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge. “What is wrong with speaking your mind? What’s wrong with someone who has Biblical values?”

Several opponents of the measure felt it was inappropriate for the council to make special protections for what they said was such a small portion of the population.

“Their goal is not equal rights. You need to let that sink in,” said Sally Stewart, an opponent. “Their goal is to take the rights of the other 98 percent of people you’re in office to serve.”

While members of the Metro Council will get their say if they take up the issue again next month for a vote, there will be no additional opportunity for public comment at that meeting.

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who sponsored the ordinance, acknowledged that the votes appeared stacked against her. But she said she is hopeful that the debate changed some of her colleagues’ minds.

“I think what they heard was from the community and not just the gay community, as people wanted to act like it was,” she said. “It was straight people, it was old people, it was young people and it was businesspeople, it was pastors that were in support of this ordinance.”

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

* This story was changed after publication to clarify comments made by Dale Brown at the Wednesday meeting and correct the spelling of Patti Snyder’s last name.