Rights panel weighs change

A group looking at possible changes to Columbus’ human rights ordinance wants city residents to put in writing whether it should include making age, sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes in the city.

About 40 people crowded into Wednesday’s Human Rights Commission meeting at City Hall, surprising commission members who were not prepared to take public comment about the ordinance or any proposed changes.

Instead, John Stroh, a member of the committee considering changes and the commission’s vice chairman, told the audience the committee preferred to have comments in writing.

After considering the written comments, the committee — which also includes Gil Palmer, Annette Barnes and Sameer Samudra — could have a recommendation for the full commission next month, Stroh said.

When commissioners were asked whether they had received information about rights violations against local members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Stroh said preliminary indications are that there have been discriminatory incidents documented by the commission that date back to the mid-2000s.

In 2006, Ian Kohen, who is now commission chairman, led an adhoc study committee for the commission to determine how it could best expand support to include the LGBT community within the ordinance.

The effort resulted in the commission changing its rules and regulations to include protections based upon sexual orientation, gender identity and age, he said, but not adding the groups as protected classes to the ordinance.

Adding age, sexual orientation and gender identity to the human rights ordinance would give those classes of people legal protection equal to what’s provided on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability and national origin or ancestry.

Currently, complaints made about age, sexual orientation and gender identity are handled in a mediation process. Commission members acknowledged during questions from the audience that mediation is voluntary. That means if one party does not want to participate, there is nothing to compel that individual to be a part of the process.

It is not an enforceable issue for the commission to investigate if a complaint involves age, sexual orientation and gender identity because those three are not protected classes in the ordinance, Stroh said.

The commission understands that holes exist within the human rights ordinance, which include the question of protected class for age, sexual identity and gender orientation, and possibly others, Kohen said. The committee’s work is to identify those areas and determine what gaps need to be addressed, he said.

Uncertainty about making changes in the ordinance to add protected classes swirled around the city following controversy over the Indiana Legislature’s approval of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in late March.

The vehement backlash to the measure from around the nation was a shock to Hoosiers, who were accused of supporting a law that allowed businesses and organizations to discriminate based on their religious beliefs against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

An email chain that circulated throughout Columbus earlier in the week encouraged people to support the LGBT community and attend Wednesday’s commission meeting to counteract feedback the subcommittee already had received.

The email said there was an organized group of people who opposed adding the protected classes and most of the feedback the commission had received so far was against the proposal.

Some feedback has been coming in to the commission office, but some have chosen to speak to commission members one-on-one instead, said Aida Ramirez, director of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, in an email to The Republic.

The commission does not have an accurate mode of documentation when the public chooses to reach a commissioner in person, rather than submitting a comment in writing, she said.

Commission staff members are documenting all calls, emails and letters that are received at the commission office and they are in a file at the office, she said. Committee members receive scanned copies of the written comments via email.

“To that end, as director, it seems to me that there is overwhelming community support for Columbus to continue to make strides as a welcoming community and becoming more inclusive of all citizens in Columbus,” she said.

The possibility of adding the three categories as protected classes in Columbus’ human rights ordinance surfaced during the primary race for the Republican nominee for Columbus mayor. Incumbent Mayor Kristen Brown and challenger Jim Lienhoop said during a debate that they would consider changing the ordinance by taking it to the Columbus City Council if recommended by the commission.

The commission’s committee is still in the information-gathering stage, Stroh said, and wants feedback in writing before completing a recommendation.

One of the concerns is whether there is a need for the ordinance to be changed, Stroh told the audience.

Even if the committee and the full commission agree that age, sexual orientation and gender identity should be added as protected classes, the Columbus City Council will have the final authority as it is the only panel that can change the ordinance, Kohen said.

Commission members defended the time they are taking with committee meetings and the request for written comments as necessary steps to make sure no mistakes are made in the process.

“Our intent is to follow the right and proper process,” Palmer said. “We want to do it right the first time.”

How to give feedback

A Columbus Human Rights Commission committee is seeking written feedback about proposed changes to the city’s human rights ordinance.

Comments may be sent by email to:

Or submitted on the organization’s website at:

A copy of the Human Rights Ordinance and the rules and regulations are available on the website.

Comments may be dropped off in writing or sent by mail to:

  • Columbus Human Rights Commission, 123 Washington St. #5, Columbus, IN 47201
Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.