- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
Sexual orientation has been added to the city of Springfield’s non-discrimination ordinance after years of debate.
Springfield city commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday night to add the language, which included an exemption for religious and para-church organizations.
Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland, Commissioner Kevin O’Neill and newly elected Commissioners David Estrop and Rob Rue voted in favor of it.
“I’m supporting this because it’s the right thing to do, to make sure that all people feel welcome and protected by the law in Springfield,” Estrop said.
Commissioner Joyce Chilton voted no. She believes the issue should be handled by the state or federal legislature. A local ordinance won’t affect all residents of Clark County and place a burden on small businesses, she said.
“It should not be the intent of the city of Springfield to create any additional protected classes yet to be established by the state of Ohio and the federal laws through the adoption of this ordinance or to have this ordinance interpreted by any commission, court or other body as elevating any one group into a protected class,” Chilton said.
While O’Neill said he still doesn’t have proof that discrimination exists in Springfield, the overwhelming majority of people who attended believed that they have been or will be discriminated against in the future, he said. He voted no on the issue when it was last voted on in 2012.
“I believe in this room tonight there’s a large majority who feel that at any given time they could be discriminated against and they have no protection,” O’Neill said. “I don’t know if you received protection tonight. If you feel you received protection tonight, I applaud you. I hope you got everything you wanted. I admire what you’ve done over the years — you kept coming.”
The ordinance already prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, ancestry, sex, national origin, age and disability. Sexual orientation was added on Tuesday evening; however that won’t apply to portions of the ordinance that may affect “religious schools, churches engaged in religious activities and owner-occupied residences with not more than three unrelated renters.”
The ordinance was changed to add language to protect religious organizations that aren’t directly affiliated with a specific church but were started based on faith, such as Young Life, Rue said.
Springfield became the 20th city in Ohio to include sexual orientation in its local non-discrimination laws, according to Equality Ohio, a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist group.
“It’s a good night for Springfield and it’s a good night for the LGBT community,” Equality Springfield President Rick Incorvati said.
While the room was full of many of his LGBT friends, Incorvati said, many others — including some who don’t publicly share their sexual orientation — didn’t attend.
“That just tells me we have to do more work educating the community,” he said. “What came out of the city commission meeting tonight was a big piece of that. It allows us to tell our friends and neighbors that they are protected and that they do have the right to live in Springfield and get the services provided by Springfield and not be denied that based a feature of their personality.”
In February 2012, commissioners voted 3-2 against amending the city’s anti-discrimination codes to include sexual orientation. The topic was debated for months before large crowds. Chilton, O’Neill and former Commissioner Dan Martin voted against the issue, while Copeland and former Commissioner Karen Duncan voted in favor of it.
A group of residents opposed the amendment, including local churches and religious organizations. The opponents said evidence of specific cases of discrimination in Springfield couldn’t be produced.
Since that time, gay marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court and an LGBT Pride Festival has been held in Springfield each of the past three years.
The discussion has continued over the past five years at city commission meetings with Equality Springfield asking commissioners to reconsider it.
In 2014, the Human Relations Board began collecting data through surveys and public meetings to gauge discrimination in Springfield. The three most common concerns cited included racial discrimination, the north/south divide and LGBT discrimination.
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A 2017 report from the city’s Human Relations Board said discrimination based on sexual orientation exists in Springfield and should be covered by local laws.
The Springfield Chapter of the NAACP investigates discrimination against LGBT residents on a regular basis, President Denise Williams told commissioners on Tuesday.
“Discrimination exists in this city,” she said.
The ordinance raises several questions for the business community, including the cost to the city’s private sector and how it will be enforced, said Jeff Kursman, the senior vice president for public relations and communications for EF Hutton. The company is opposed to discrimination in all forms, he said.
“Why rush to adopt what’s clearly a contentious issue for this community when the state is considering legislation — to the point of some of the commissioners — is likely to supersede what’s being voted on,” Kursman said. “It’s often in a rush to expediency that good intentions have unintended consequences. Good public policy should be based upon information, not purely emotion.”
The city shouldn’t wait for state lawmakers to make a decision because it could take a long time, Springfield resident Kevin Gray said.
“It’s the right thing to do and it’s the right time to do it,” he said.
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