Residents push commissioners to revisit failed amendment

Two years after city commissioners voted to reject an ordinance that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Springfield’s non-discrimination laws, local gay rights advocates asked them to reconsider their vote.

The nearly 45-minute debate was held at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, including members of Equality Springfield and Highlands United Church of Christ.

The current ordinance covers several groups, including race, religion, ancestry, sex, national origin, age and disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.

Discrimination is possible simply because the city hasn’t added “those four words” to its laws, said Springfield resident Jan Kushmaul. She urged commissioners to bring the matter before them again.

“Other cities and other states are moving into the 21st century, realizing that all people are entitled to protection under the law,” she said. “I’ve always felt that Springfield was on the cutting edge of caring for all members of society, but some of you have disappointed me. I consider it more of a lack of understanding than a lack of caring.”

In February 2012, commissioners voted 3-2 against amending the city’s human rights codes. The topic was debated for months before large crowds at commission meetings.

Commissioners Dan Martin, Joyce Chilton and Kevin O’Neill voted against the issue, while Mayor Warren Copeland and Commissioner Karen Duncan voted in favor of the amendment.

A large group of residents opposed the amendment, including local churches and religious organizations. The opposition said proponents couldn’t produce specific cases of discrimination in Springfield. No one spoke against a possible amendment during the meeting Tuesday.

After several residents spoke about the issue Tuesday night, Mayor Warren Copeland and Commissioner Karen Duncan each said they would vote to accept the ordinance if it came before them again. Both voted in favor of the change two years ago.

“I’m very proud of the vote I cast to end discrimination in Springfield for the LGBT community,” Duncan said.

Commissioners Kevin O’Neill and Joyce Chilton didn’t respond before the meeting adjourned.

Commissioner Dan Martin said efforts have been made to bring the issue before the state electorate. He said he doesn’t endorse anyone’s discrimination, but believes it’s a statewide issue.

If people aren’t satisfied with what the commission has done, Martin said they can bring the issue before Springfield voters.

“It’s an issue that people need to weigh in on and have their say, not just the five of us,” Martin said.

Resident Winkie Mitchell, a member of the Human Relations Board, told commissioners that putting it on the ballot won’t work. The ordinance is about human rights, she said, and the city doing the right thing.

“People have said to me over and over again, you can’t legislate morality,” Mitchell said. “That is true. All of the people who are part of the protective class are still being discriminated against because discrimination is alive and well in Springfield and everywhere.”

Equality Springfield President Rick Incorvati spoke to O’Neill, who told the Springfield News-Sun last June he stood by his position that there is no proof of discrimination with regards to jobs and housing. Incorvati read several instances of discrimination in Springfield the group provided in a report to the Human Relations Board and city commissioners in 2011.

“Commissioner O’Neill, you had this in your hands,” Incorvati said. “There is evidence of discrimination in Springfield..”

Springfield resident Rob Baker, a former city commission candidate, said since the vote, the landscape has changed with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s decision to change his stance on gay marriage.

“By refusing to offer it two years ago, you’ve allowed the second-class treatment to continue,” Baker said, “forcing some to leave our community rather than endure the economic and emotional pain that it causes.”

The Human Relations Board held its second forum on discrimination on Wednesday afternoon at United Senior Services. At the first forum held last month, the board released its findings of surveys compiled at Culturefest, which showed race, color and sexual orientation to be the biggest issues of discrimination in the community.

Information collected from the forums will be used by the board as it moves forward in future months.

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