Carmel City Council members made it clear Monday night that a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance is not guaranteed to pass.
In a packed council chambers, members listened to more than two hours of public comment, with most people opposing legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The council postponed a vote on the proposal and moved it to the council’s finance committee, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Many speakers accused the city of trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, expressed worries of future lawsuits and mentioned concerns about losing religious freedoms in exchange for awarding freedoms to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Gays and lesbians are not a special class. Neither are Christians,” WIBC radio host Tony Katz said. “I am positive that this is a horrible law.”
Mayor Jim Brainard said discrimination might not be an issue in Carmel, but the perception of it is a problem in the entire state, which is why he introduced the ordinance.
Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act earlier this year, which quickly spurred controversy with critics arguing it would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals. The General Assembly approved what some considered a fix meant to prevent the law from being used to discriminate, but some business and gay-rights advocates are now pushing to add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes.
Carmel resident Annette Gross, state coordinator of Indiana Parents, Families, Friends & Allies of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, said she thinks it’s common for gays and lesbians not to report discrimination because of a lack of protections in place.
“We don’t know if there’s been cases of discrimination,” Gross said. “Often they won’t file a complaint… without protections, it’s kind of pointless.”
Six of the seven council members sponsored the ordinance, but council member Kevin Rider stressed to the audience Monday night that it doesn’t mean they support it—it means they allowed the item to be on the agenda.
“It needs work—that’s why it’s going to committee,” Rider said.
Council member Eric Seidensticker is the lone council member not listed as a sponsor.
As drafted, the ordinance also includes a person’s race, color, national origin, gender, disability, family or marital status, ancestry, age or veteran status, although most of the debate centered on the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
It would apply to businesses, housing, public accommodations, education, employment, contracts, programs, services and amenities. Religious entities or clergy while engaged in religious activities, not-for profit memberships organized exclusively for religious purposes or not open to the general public, private residences or gatherings, and maintenance of separate restrooms or dressing rooms are exempt.
Anyone who violates the ordinance could be charged a $500 fine plus attorney’s fees for each offense, each person and each day the violation continues. Brainard clarified Monday that the $500 fee is ceiling price—it could be lower.
Council member Luci Snyder also mentioned she doesn’t necessarily support the ordinance as written.
“We’re listening to what people have to say,” Snyder said. “I think this needs a bit of work and clarification.”
Several amendments were mentioned toward the end of the meeting, including allowing businesses to refuse to produce custom products. Brainard gave the example of a business owner having to create something they consider profane.
Another amendment would also specify what an exempt religious activity includes, such as schools, athletics or other educational programs.
Seidensticker said his preference would be to draft a proclamation declaring that the city doesn’t discriminate and giving businesses the opportunity to sign it.
“That way you get buy-in from the businesses, and you’re not forcing the hammer,” Seidensticker said.