Democrats call for change to city ordinance

Local Democrats are calling for Columbus to add the gay and lesbian community as a protected class in the city’s human rights ordinance.

In a statement Tuesday, Bartholomew County Democratic Chairwoman Priscilla Scalf asked that Mayor Kristen Brown place that request on the city council agenda for 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Local Democrats want the city to amend the ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Scalf also asked that the city council consider a resolution calling on the state to do the same.

Columbus residents have suggested for years that the ordinance be amended to include protections for the LGBT community, but the mayor and city council have failed to act, Scalf said.

“Now, with discrimination finding champions in the Statehouse, this oversight can cause lasting harm to our community,” Scalf said.

Local Democrats sought the change after state legislators passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Columbus native Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law Thursday in a private ceremony.

Opponents have labeled the bill a “license to discriminate,” saying Indiana has no legislation identifying the LGBT community as a protected class from discrimination. Opponents claim the law would allow businesses to decline to serve the LGBT community based on a business’s religious beliefs.

The Columbus Human Rights Commission does accept cases on behalf of the LGBT community and will continue to do so, Ian Kohen, commission chairman, said in a statement Tuesday.

Kohen led an ad hoc commission study committee in 2008 to determine how the commission could best expand support to include the LGBT community in the city, he said.

That effort resulted in a recommendation shared in a public hearing that was unanimously approved by the full Human Rights Commission to change the rules and regulations to include protections based upon sexual orientation, gender identity and age, he said.

The legal change was made by the commission in its rules and regulations but was not considered by the city council, he said.

Prior to 2008, the Human Rights Ordinance provided protection from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, education, credit and public accommodation on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, disability, national origin and familial status, he said. The commission believes in a welcoming community for all, he said.

Barb Hackman, chairwoman of the Bartholomew County Republican Party, said she would prefer to wait to see how state legislators clarify and modify the law before having the city council taking action locally.

“I do feel they need to do something at the state level,” said Hackman, who added that she also would be open to discussion locally.

Hackman said she does not believe state legislators realized potential repercussions of the bill or the impact of the perceptions about the bill.

“I know that their intention was not discrimination,” she said.

Councilman Jim Lienhoop, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Columbus mayor, agreed that city officials should take a wait-and-see approach for now — until state legislators respond.

Lienhoop said he is also open to discussing the issue but said city action seems premature now.

Republican Mayor Brown did not reply to requests Tuesday afternoon for her comments on the matter.

She and Lienhoop were scheduled to appear at a 6 p.m. Tuesday candidate forum sponsored by the Bartholomew Republican Ladies League. Today, they face off in a 6 p.m. debate on the IUPUC campus sponsored by the university and The Republic.

Discrimination complaints

The Columbus Human Rights Commission was established in 1962 and was the first Human Rights Commission in Indiana.

If Columbus residents feel that they have been discriminated against, they may contact the Human Rights Commission at City Hall, by phone at 812-376-2532 or via e-mail at humanrights@columbus.in.gov/.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.