Metro Council defers voting on 'Fairness Ordinance'

After hours of passionate back-and-forth about a proposed ban on discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the Baton Rouge Metro Council adjourned the meeting at 8:30 p.m. without voting.

The ordinance was proposed by Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, creating a local law banning discrimination of LGBT people in areas of housing, employment and public accommodations. Those who violate the ordinance, which also would apply broadly to classes including race, color, religion, disability, sex and veteran status, could file a lawsuit in state district court.

Opponents repeatedly said the ordinance would violate their religious freedom. A string of business executives in favor of the proposal said it would position Baton Rouge to compete with other cities on economic development and recruiting new talent.

However, ahead of the meeting, it appeared that a majority of the Metro Council would not support the measure.

On Tuesday, one councilman who has come out against Marcelle’s proposed ordinance offered up his own alternative: a non-binding resolution that discourages “unjust discrimination against any person whomsoever and of any kind whatsoever.” The proposal by Councilman Ryan Heck, released Tuesday afternoon in a Facebook post, makes no mention of gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people.

Marcelle said she opposes Heck’s attempt at watering down her proposal, saying it is necessary to give the measure some teeth, which his does not do.

She said opponents like Heck are specifically against the part of the proposed ordinance that would protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people from discrimination.

“Primarily they’re running away from the LGBT piece,” she said. “They’ll do whatever they have to do to take that piece out so they feel comfortable, but it doesn’t change the fact that these people feel like they’re being discriminated against, and it doesn’t move the city forward.”

Heck said by specifically identifying different protected classes, like Marcelle’s proposal, it has the unintended effect of excluding people who are not listed.

“I feel it encompasses everyone in Baton Rouge society,” he said of his proposal. “No matter how different or how unique or how similar they are.”

Heck said he will propose his resolution on the floor of the council chambers during the Wednesday vote as an alternative to Marcelle’s proposal.

He said he worked with members of the business community and religious groups who did not want to be identified.

“There are several well-respected businesspersons that I also worked with on this that are very fair that share my concerns of the litigious nature of Councilwoman Marcelle’s ordinance,” he said.

Supporters of the proposed 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.

Heck’s proposal will be likened to the “One Baton Rouge” resolutions of 2007 and 2010, which failed to pass the Metro Council. Those nonbinding resolutions expressed tolerance for people of all “colors, religions, sexual orientations, nationalities, and people of all walks of life.”

Heck’s proposal recognizes people of different backgrounds without identifying any protected classes — rather it identifies their differences by acknowledging that Baton Rouge is “richly diverse, composed of people of varied walks of life, backgrounds and experiences, with variegated world-views, belief-systems, convictions and values, who exhibit distinctive innate characteristics and have chosen sundry affiliations, who are animated by various passions, interests and desires, and who pursue different aspirations, hopes and dreams.”

His proposed resolution states that despite these differences, people should be treated fairly and with dignity, and it encourages people who do business with the city-parish to adopt policies “designed to guarantee diversity among their workforces” and “avoid unjust discrimination in their dealings.”

Heck said he is certain that Marcelle will not have the necessary seven votes to win approval of her proposed ordinance. Along with Heck, council members Tara Wicker, Buddy Amoroso, Scott Wilson and Joel BoĆ© have confirmed they will vote against Marcelle’s measure. Councilman Trae Welch is expected to be absent from the meeting.

Only Marcelle and John Delgado have pledged to support her measure.

Delgado called Heck’s proposal “offensive” and “cowardly,” adding that it is weaker than the One Baton Rouge resolutions.

“He’s trying to placate the gay community and a large number of his constituents that are looking to better the city of Baton Rouge and at the same time kowtowing to religious fanatics that would have him oppose what would otherwise be a common-sense measure,” Delgado said. “It is so offensive to me that he has purposefully excluded any reference to any discriminated class.”

Marcelle acknowledged her proposal could fail at the council meeting, but she said it’s still a worthwhile debate that has earned the backing of distinguished business leaders.

Proponents of her measure include the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Advocates have promised that prominent Baton Rouge business leaders will be attending the council meeting to support the proposal.

On Tuesday, Mayor-President Kip Holden quietly issued an endorsement of Marcelle’s measure on his Facebook page, encouraging people to email their council members to support the proposed ordinance.

“It may not have a chance of passing, but I believe the debate needs to be had, and a lot of people are afraid of this debate,” Marcelle said. “If you’re a representative, regardless of your beliefs, you need to be able to stand up and say why or why not. We owe that to the people of this city.”

But Heck described his measure as a compromise that will have the support of the council.

“This is a tremendous positive step in the right direction, and I think we can pass this, whereas I don’t think we can pass Councilwoman Marcelle’s,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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