After 3 hours of citizen comments, anti-discrimination law heading to committee
One by one, dozens of impassioned speakers spoke for and against a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance that was introduced at the Carmel City Council on Aug. 17.
The proposed law, which would outlaw businesses from turning away people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and other factors, was sent to the finance committee.
That committee will meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in City Hall. Comments from the public will not be guaranteed since it is a working meeting and the councilors need to discuss how to possibly rework the bill.
For around than three hours, many people spoke at length to an increasingly tired crowd at Monday’s council meeting. The audience was packed with not enough seats or standing room, making it necessary for some attendees to listen on speakers wheeled out into the lobby. More people spoke against the ordinance than for it, but the actual crowd in attendance appeared to be evenly split. Some speakers started to lose their train of thought as the night wore on. Many attendees regularly posted on Twitter on their phone during the proceedings.
One particularly impassioned speaker – who referenced Satan, Ferguson, Mo., and President Obama in her comments against the ordinance – elicited boos and groans near the end of her speech, prompting acting Council President Kevin “Woody” Rider to say, “This is exactly what why we’re here. You don’t have to agree or disagree. You just have to be respectful.”
Another speaker began to ramble, causing Rider to interrupt to say, “You’re getting closer to your point.”
Council President Rick Sharp was the only councilor not in attendance. He missed the meeting because he was helping his daughter move.
PUBLIC FOR THE ORDINANCE
Prior to the meeting, a crowd of supporters of the law, wearing red stickers that read “Zero Discrimination,” encouraged the council to possibly suspend the rules and vote that night. They didn’t get their wish.
Denise Gilbey Moe, a Carmel City Center resident and vocal supporter of Mayor Brainard, helped organize a rally to show support for the ordinance.
“We are a leader in innovative infrastructure, public safety, great schools, everything is wonderful in Carmel,” she told the crowd before the meeting. “Carmel is a leader in nondiscrimination. It’s a leader in human rights and it’s very, very important that we pass this ordinance. Six months ago, Indiana got a firestorm of negative media attention. Six months ago, the number one hashtag on Twitter for three days was ‘boycott Indiana.’ That is huge. That will absolutely have a far reaching negative economic impact on Carmel. We pride ourselves on having over 70 national corporate headquarters located in Carmel. We have an educated, talented workforce. Millennials are moving into Carmel. Our population is growing. It is absolutely imperative to the workings of our city to be able to attract enterprise, business and talented workers.”
Annette Gross, a 20-year resident of Carmel, talked about how her son is gay and she’s concerned that Carmel might appear to not be welcoming.
“We have a lot of LGBT kids that might leave the state after college because they don’t know if they’ll be welcome here,” she said at a rally before the meeting.
Mo Merhoff, president of OneZone, which includes the Carmel Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the business impact of the law.
“A good part of our appeal to keep attracting businesses here is our determination to continue to be a ‘yes’ community,” she said. “Yes to innovative ideas. Yes to creative thinkers. Yes to inclusive environments. And yes to diversity and tolerance and acceptance.”
JD Ford, a former Democratic candidate for State Senate and openly gay man, said the ordinance is, “not about special rights. It cements my rights into law.”
“I want to know when I go out to eat and when I pick up my dry cleaning and the other errands that I run, that I won’t be discriminated along the way,” he said. “Opponents of this ordinance will use every single scare tactic to scare you.”
PUBLIC AGAINST THE ORDINANCE
Tony Katz, local talk radio personality, was one of the first speakers against the proposed law.
“I opposed RFRA not because I believe Christians shouldn’t be protected but because they are already protected by the Constitution,” Katz said. “I oppose this law for the very same reason. Gay people are not a special class. Neither are Christians.”
Former Carmel City Councilor John Accetturo said he doesn’t believe in discrimination but he also believes in his pastor and his religion.
“Mayor Brainard wants to take away my rights to practice my religion,” he said.
The Rev. Richard Doerr from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church said he believes the law actually discriminates against Christians.
“My point of concern is a recent statement by Mayor Brainard in which he stated, ‘While we should all respect the religious beliefs of our citizens, whether we be one of any number of religious persuasions or beliefs, I feel that it is important to recognize that distinct difference in how we worship our God in our churches, our homes, our hearts, versus how we live, play and conduct business in the melting pot of mixed faiths and passions that we call America,’” he said. “Fundamental to the Catholic faith is the moral truth that there should never be a difference between how we worship our God in our churches and our homes and our hearts and how we live, play and conduct business in public arena. In fact, we believe the tenants of the Christian faith and to act in a way that is contrary to those tenants would be sinful and hypocritical. Not only must the city recognize the integral connection between faith and public expression, they must recognize the benefit of faithful acts in the public square.”
Ed Shaughnessy, Carmel resident, called the law, “A fix to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“Framing this ordinance as an economic tool is really a smoke screen,” he said.
Another speaker, Barbara Williams, a Carmel resident, told the Council, “If you pass this law, you have blood on your hands.”
Sue Tapp Lile, one of the leaders of the Constitutional Patriots, a Hamilton County Tea Party group, said she thought the law was unnecessary since there is no discrimination problem in Carmel. She said it’s not right to hide one’s faith in private.
Many speakers argued that the law would open the City of Carmel up to frivolous lawsuits. They said that someone would try to “test” the law by claiming discrimination where there is none just to “make money.” Several people pointed out that Facebook has 58 different gender expression options for users to select, including many the average person has not heard of. They claim this could open up problems.
Brainard began his comments by trying to clear up what he sees as misconceptions. He said the law allows for “no private right of action” which means that citizens can report human rights violations to the city, but that they can’t use this law to file civil lawsuits. Carmel’s city attorney, Doug Haney, would decide whether a complaint is valid and has the ability to assess fines up to $500 a day to punish a business. It doesn’t have to always be that high. Brainard said the city attorney would decide if something is “frivolous.” He said he would solve “real problems and not look for problems that don’t exist.”
“There are a lot of horror stories about people wanting to sue,” he said. “That’s not allowed under this ordinance.”
Brainard went on to explain exemptions from the law and some amendments that he has discussed with city councilors that will be added. He said bathrooms are not included so businesses don’t have to worry about constructing several different facilities for different gender identities.
“The City of Carmel only recognizes two, male or female, we don’t care what Facebook says,” he said.
Brainard pointed out that religious officials and clergy are exempt when conducting religious activities. Not-for-profit social clubs are exempt. Religious clubs are exempt. Private residencies not open to the public are exempt.
One notable amendment is to include “custom products” and would protect business owners who want to turn down “profane” materials. In theory, this would apply to the example that was brought up about a Jewish baker being asked to make a cake that says, “Death to Israel.”
Brainard admits that those that support the ordinance might actually see some amendments and exemptions as something they don’t like, “but even with them they are getting protections they wouldn’t normally have.”
In essence, Brainard defended the need of the law as a way to protect economic growth.
“I never thought there was a serious problem here in Carmel,” he said. “However there is a problem and that’s perception about the state and the cities within that state. We can talk a long time about whether it is perception or reality, at some point perception becomes reality and we have to deal with it. We looked at Indianapolis’ ordinance and we looked at ordinances around the country. That’s one reason why we limited this ordinance.”
City Councilor Ron Carter said he was upset that opponents of the law claimed it opened up frivolous lawsuits. He said he received legal documents full of mistruths, which he said is, “probably not worth the paper that it’s printed on.”
“I dislike having this brought to us with the scare tactics that this implies,” he said. “From the standpoint that all of the suits that they are talking about are not part of what we are doing here.”
City Councilor Luci Snyder said she was annoyed that media outlets already characterized the council as “gay rights activists.” She said sponsoring the law – which six of the seven councilors did – is not indicative of support. She did not say if she was for or against the ordinance.
“I think the law needs some work,” she said.
City Councilor Eric Seidensticker said there was no chance that the proposed ordinance would have been voted on that night because it requires a unanimous vote. Seidensticker went on to describe his faith and how God “gives people free will” and that means you can’t legislate away hatred.
City Councilor Sue Finkam encouraged people to give feedback on the new amendments to the law. She also apologized for comments she made in response to one angry opponent of the ordinance. She said she would help that person move. She said that was inappropriate to say and she was sorry.
City Councilor Carol Schleif did not speak.
Rider spoke last, saying he doesn’t believe in discrimination in the restaurants he owns.
“I have been employing people for 33 years,” he said. “I make a point not to label them. I don’t care what people do.”
At the same time, Rider is a frequent volunteer at Northview Church and his faith is important to him. But he thinks there is work to be done in committee to reconcile his two ideas.
“In the current form, I was choosing between God and government. I’m going to choose God every time,” he said. “These amendments make me feel more comfortable. It’s going to committee and we will work on the details.”