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Carmel's anti-discrimination proposal stays in committee

September 17, 2015

Carmel’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance will remain in the City Council’s finance committee after several council members expressed an interest in clarifying parts of it.

The four-person finance committee met Thursday to discuss the ordinance, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Chairwoman Luci Snyder took public comment from several people, which is unusual for committee meetings.

Eric Miller, founder of Advance America, spoke for nearly 20 minutes, mostly criticizing the proposal for being too vague and susceptible to legal challenges. 

Miller said it lacks clear definitions of terms like sexual orientation and gender identity, referencing several times that Facebook offers 58 different options for gender identity.

“In the past, when people talked about gender, there used to be two—male and female,” Miller said.

As currently drafted, the ordinance includes a person’s race, color, national origin, gender, disability, family or marital status, ancestry, age or veteran status, although most of the debate has focused on the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The proposal would apply to businesses, housing, public accommodations, education, employment, contracts, programs, services and amenities. Religious entities or clergy engaged in religious activities, not-for-profit memberships organized exclusively for religious purposes or not open to the general public, and private residences or gatherings would be exempt. Maintenance of separate restrooms or dressing rooms would not be required.

Anyone violating the ordinance could be charged a $500 fine plus attorney’s fees for each offense and for each person and each day the violation continues.

Miller also argued that the $500-per-day fine could do significant financial harm if an accusation wasn't addressed quickly.

Snyder agreed and moved to keep the ordinance within the committee’s control.

“We’re giving the city the power to crush a person financially,” Snyder said.

Council member Ron Carter, who does not serve on the committee but attended the meeting, argued that Snyder had a month to draft an amendment and said approval of the proposal shouldn’t be delayed.

“We are attempting to drag our feet and not pass a non-discrimination ordinance based on a lot of technicalities. It’s sending exactly the opposite message,” Carter said. “I would say we ought to move on with this.”

“Well, you’re not on this committee,” Snyder responded.

Council member Sue Finkam, who does serve on the committee, tried to send the ordinance without any amendments back to the full council with a positive recommendation, but no other committee member supported her.

Council members Eric Seidensticker and Carol Schleif also are on the committee.

Assistant city attorney Ashley Ulbricht told the council members that $500 is the maximum fine—it does not mean any violator would be charged that amount.

Mayor Jim Brainard has said the ordinance is needed to fix the perception that Carmel—and the entire state—is unwelcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act earlier this year, quickly spurring controversy. Critics argued it would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals.

The General Assembly approved what most considered a fix meant to prevent the law from being used to discriminate. Some business and gay-rights advocates are now pushing to add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes.

When the Carmel ordinance was introduced to the council in August, members listened to more than two hours of public comment and suggested it would be amended before the council took a final vote.

“I’m disappointed that we don’t have any work in front of us,” Finkam said about the lack of amendments ready for discussion Thursday.

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