After hearing arguments from local citizens – including some on both sides speaking from religious convictions – Statesboro City Council on Tuesday morning unanimously voted the main part of a proposed city nondiscrimination law forward to a second reading.
That part of the overall Nondiscrimination and Equity Ordinance will forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex, as well as disability, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age or military status in employment, housing and the sale or rental of real estate and in public accommodations.
The second part, which includes a 6% marginal preference for minority- and female-owned local businesses in bids for city contracts and purchases, was sent forward on a 4-1 vote. The third part, the “equity provision,” which calls for diversity training for city employees, direction of federal grant funds to historically disadvantaged neighborhoods and a measured and monitored “campaign for equity,” was also voted to a second reading 5-0.
But before voting, the council heard from 11 citizens expressing support for the ordinance and from three opposed to at least portions of it.
Local resident Jeff Klare is national director of employment for the United States Veterans’ Chamber of Commerce. He wants to make Statesboro the home of a state chapter.
“This ordinance is essential for me personally in making more investments in the city of Statesboro. I want to know that all the vendors that we work with are inclusion- and diversity-based. … ,” Klare said. “It concerns me greatly that our veterans, people with disabilities, seniors, people of color are treated equally, fairly and have a right to do whatever they choose to do in this city.”
Two other people also spoke of a need to improve access and fair treatment for people with disabilities.
Religion and sexuality
But most of the comments were related to protections for LGBTQ people, and this is where religious differences came in.
The Rev. Jane Page, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro and previously retired as a professor, recalled that years ago Georgia Southern became the first public university in Georgia to adopt an anti-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation.
This policy, she said, helped the university to recruit and retain outstanding faculty, staff and students.
“The same can be true for our beloved city of Statesboro,” Page said. “We too can be known for our inclusivity and appreciation of diversity rather than as a closed-minded city where all are not welcome. Indeed, my heart ached when I heard of the individual in our city who was not allowed to keep his apartment simply because he was gay.”
Councilman Phil Boyum had referred to this incident in an earlier discussion of the nondiscrimination ordinance.
Marcus Toole, who came out as gay several years ago but was previously a missionary pastor for the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, began his remarks Tuesday with criticism of that denomination. But Mayor Jonathan McCollar told him that the council chambers would not be a place to “go after” any church.
Toole then spoke more generally of society’s mistreatment of LGBTQ people.
“People have used religious conviction as an excuse to marginalize us, to fire us, to kill us,” he said. “We don’t go after them. They always come after us, and they have done so for thousands of years. They have burned us at the stake, they have thrown us off of buildings, they have hung us, they have stoned us … and they have excluded us from every area of society. …
“So I urge you, please protect us. We need your protection, because this bigotry is not about what we do, it is about who we are and what we are and things that we cannot change,” Toole said to the council.
Reid Derr, Ph.D., a retired East Georgia State College history professor and member of Trinity Presbyterian Church, which is a PCA congregation, had spoken to the council about the ordinance at two previous meetings. At the Sept. 15 work session, he presented two suggested amendments, one of which he said was actually from Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Roland Barnes.
With neither of those amendments in the ordinance as considered Tuesday, Derr spoke in opposition. He first read aloud the section of the ordinance that would prohibit discriminating against “any person … because of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or military status.”
“Would a bigot affirm that?” Derr asked. “I fully, completely and in conscience affirm that 100 percent. I want you to understand that. I don’t think a bigot would affirm that. But I encourage you to amend, to add the conscientious objection amendment.”
The added clause he offered would have allowed people to refuse, on the basis of religious faith or personal conscience, to cooperate, encourage or advance a position to which they conscientiously object.
As his citing of certain nationally publicized lawsuits – the Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene’s Flowers cases – suggested, this wording was meant to allow business people such as florists, bakers and photographers to refuse to participate publicly in same-sex weddings without this being a violation of Statesboro’s ordinance.
“I think that the council risks making a new category of second-class citizens, for those who affirm a traditional and biblical view of sexuality and marriage,” Derr said Tuesday. “That is where I’m coming from.”
He was one of several speakers whose comments were cut short by a three-minute time limit the mayor enforced.
The Rev. Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Statesboro, which is a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, had spoken in support of the ordinance.
“As you receive the comments of your fellow citizens this morning, I urge you to listen to the underpinnings of what really is at hand and stand fast in your call to speak for the flourishing of all citizens of Statesboro,” Hartman told the mayor and council, “and I commend you for bringing forth this ordinance and for seeking that all might have pathway to live and to flourish and to be their whole self.”
But the Rev. James W. Byrd of Brooklet spoke against the ordinance, after first saying that he, as an African American, is obviously not against civil rights. However, he said he had points to make “in defense of the corporate Christian faith.”
“I don’t have a problem with whether you are LGBTQ or whatever your particular lifestyle,” Byrd said. “What the Bible tells us to do is to be compassionate towards individuals who engage in lifestyles antithetical to biblical principles. Indeed we are compassionate. Nevertheless, compassion does not require agreement, approval or submission to their lifestyle.”
In response to a question from Boyum at the beginning of the meeting, City Attorney Cain Smith said that Statesboro’s proposed ordinance does not conflict with state or federal law. The ordinance now pending final approval is “substantially the same” as Doraville’s ordinance, which has been in effect for 20 years and has not faced any constitutional challenge, he said.
Statesboro’s mayor asserted that the city is simply “coming into line” with current state and federal policies and rulings.
“So a business currently, right now, already, does not have the right to discriminate in who they provide services for or sell to if it is a public business,” McCollar said. “And so, what the city of Statesboro is currently saying is that we are going to adhere to state and federal guidelines as of right now.”
Discrimination complaints would be referred first to a mediator for voluntary mediation and, if not settled that way, to the Statesboro Municipal Court judge. The judge could apply a civil penalty of up to $500 for a first violation or a fine of up to $1,000 or suspension or loss of a business’ occupational tax certificate, informally known as a business license, for subsequent violations.
When Boyum made the motion to approve the first reading, he included instructions for staff to investigate the cost of the city paying at least part of the cost of mediation, instead of having the parties split the cost.
Councilwoman Shari Barr seconded the motion, which passed 5-0. Councilwoman Paulette Chavers made the motions for each of the other two parts of the ordinance, seconded by Councilwoman Venus Mack.
Boyum cast the only vote against the second part, which includes the marginal preference for minority- and female-owned local bidders. It will be the subject of another story.
The city-appointed Statesboro Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, also known as One Boro, had been developing a diversity and inclusion proposal for months. Then, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer protecting LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination, Boyum offered a motion to have Smith draw up nondiscrimination ordinance.
These efforts were combined.
Apparently 10 Georgia cities now have nondiscrimination ordinances. The number has been growing while Statesboro’s has been under consideration, with East Point’s adopted June 15, Savannah’s July 24 and Smyrna’s Aug. 3, said One Boro Chair April Schueths, Ph.D.
“Many of the businesses in Statesboro are already leading the way with anti-discrimination policies and practices,” she said Tuesday. “It’s time that the city follows the path they’ve laid out. It’s good business, and it’s the right thing to do.”
A final vote adopting the ordinance could be taken Oct. 20.