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Board: LGBT discrimination exists in Springfield

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Video of Human Relations report from Springfield City Commission, June 7.

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The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about possible changes to non-discrimination laws since the issue was first debated in 2011.

Springfield Human Relations Board

Report Findings

• Compelling evidence sexual orientation discrimination exists in Springfield.

• No legal framework providing protection.

• Changes to ordinance will expand justice.

• Can be accomplished without infringing upon religious rights.

• Important to increasing population.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation exists in Springfield and should be covered by local laws, according to a report from the city’s Human Relations Board.

The board will present the report to Springfield city commissioners at a work session at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. It recommends commissioners add sexual orientation to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

The current ordinance prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, ancestry, sex, national origin, age and disability. No amendments have been proposed to change those rules, Springfield Community Development Director Shannon Meadows said.

In February 2012, commissioners voted 3-2 against amending the city's anti-discrimination 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 adding sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination codes.

Copeland continues to support the amendment, he said.

“I would vote for it at any time that there are two other votes that would make it possible to do it,” Copeland said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Duncan said she still supports changes to the ordinance. In 2014, she showed her support by appearing on a billboard that read: "You can be fired for being gay in Springfield. Help us change that."

O’Neill, Martin and Chilton all declined to comment.

A group of residents opposed the amendment, including local churches and religious organizations. The opposition said evidence of specific cases of discrimination in Springfield couldn’t be produced.

The discussion has continued over the past five years at city commission meetings with Equality Springfield — a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual advocacy group — asking commissioners to reconsider the issue.

In 2014, the board began collecting data through surveys and public meetings to gauge discrimination in the community. The three most common concerns cited included racial discrimination; the north/south divide; and LGBT discrimination.

Since that time, gay marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court and Springfield held its first LGBT Pride Festival last year.

“It’s been a process in motion for a little while now (for the board),” Human Relations Board Chairman Eric Smith said. “This came up as a continuing issue that needs to be addressed. … We were responding to what the community told us we need to work on.”

The report includes statements from 2011 with specific examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The board interviewed several people who have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation, but they asked to remain anonymous due to possible employment, housing or safety repercussions.

“We feel that we need to create the context in which people can, if there is discrimination, bring that to the light of day through the court process and we can settle it that way,” Smith said.

If the evidence didn’t exist, the board would still make the recommendation because national surveys have shown it is a national reality, the report says.

“It is the board’s opinion that it would be hubris to consider Springfield to be isolated from national statistics,” it says.

Most employees, renters and public accommodation patrons in Springfield can be denied a livelihood, housing or service based on sexual orientation, which includes heterosexual, homosexual or transgender, the report says.

By changing the ordinance, it would allow the court system to decide if discrimination occurred, the report says.

“This is not a question of special rights or anything like that,” Smith said. “It’s a question of equal rights.”

The report is a great step by the Human Relations board, Equality Springfield spokesman Rick Incorvati said.

“We know the problem, all that’s waiting is the political will to do something about it,” Incorvati said.

When reached by phone Monday, state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said he opposes both the local ordinance and a proposed state law — House Bill 286 — that would provide protections to pastors who refuse to marry safe-sex couples.

The rights are already given under the First and 14th amendments, Koehler said.

“By writing into law additional rights for people, we’re diminishing the rights we have under the Constitution,” Koehler said. “Whether we’re talking about HB 286 or this local ordinance, I don’t think we should be giving additional rights to individuals based upon their sexual preference, the types of clothes they like to wear or who they’re attracted to.”

If either of those proposed laws are eventually overturned by courts, Koehler said it could have the opposite effect of what the people want in either case.

“It could come back to haunt them in the future or lead to us giving rights to many groups,” Koehler said.