Columbus City Council members looked beyond arguments of religious discrimination and voted unanimously to extend civil rights protections to the LGBT community.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the city’s human rights ordinance. Council members made that decision despite feedback raised on religious grounds that the action would force Christians to act against their personal beliefs.

The council also agreed to add age and veterans as protected classes after hearing more than three hours of testimony from a crowd of about 100 people in the Cal Brand meeting room of Columbus City Hall.

A second and final vote on the ordinance change is expected Sept. 15.

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Columbus Human Rights Commission director Aida Ramirez described the council’s vote as historic, coming 15 years after the commission first proposed protections within the ordinance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. She walked down the council table and shook each council member’s hand after the vote, thanking them for their support.

“It’s been a long process, a learning process,” she said. “What’s really crucial, this really is about availability of equal opportunity.”

Even though council members heard hours of testimony for and against the proposal Aug. 18 and again Tuesday night, council president Tim Shuffett said it was letters by the hundreds sent by local residents to the human rights commission earlier this summer that moved members to add the protected classes.

Shuffett said the personal stories he read about how some members of the LGBT community convinced him of the need for the change. Those letters and emails included stories of individuals who sought acceptance but instead lost jobs, housing opportunities and more as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Columbus has always stood up as a welcoming community, and this is another step forward,” he said. “It’s critical that everyone is treated equally in the areas of employment, housing, education and public accommodation.”

How welcoming is Columbus?

Throughout Tuesday’s testimony, two different views of Columbus emerged.Representatives from the LGBT community recounted instances of discrimination in jobs and housing.Others from some of Columbus’ religious congregations, however, said there was no need for the change as such discrimination doesn’t exist and hasn’t been proved.

At times, as many as 10 people were lined up at the back of the meeting hall, waiting for a chance to speak to the council. More than 30 people spoke at the microphone.

The first speaker was Dana Harrison, an ordained First Presbyterian Church deacon, who identified herself as a transgender woman, born a male.

Harrison told the council she had lost two jobs, one of them in Indiana, and was not accepted as a patient by doctors twice in Columbus. She said she hoped she would never need to have a conversation about being transgender when trying to rent a house.

Harrison asked that she be allowed to work, pay her bills, go to church, rent a house and — since she is older than 50 — not face discrimination about age, which is what she expected from her city government.

Business impact

Two Cummins executives, Mark A. Levett, vice president of corporate responsibility, and Mark Osowick, vice president of human resources operations, also spoke in favor of the ordinance changes.Levett said the Columbus-based company’s history promotes diversity and inclusion, which are among Cummins’ core values.He quoted the late J. Irwin Miller, a Cummins CEO, whose words are part of the orientation that every new Cummins employee hears when joining the company: “In the search for character and commitment, we must rid ourselves of our inherited, even cherished biases and prejudices. Character, ability and intelligence are not concentrated in one sex over the other, nor in persons with certain accents or in certain races or in persons holding degrees from some universities over others. When we indulge ourselves in such irrational prejudices, we damage ourselves most of all and ultimately assure ourselves of failure in competition with those more open and less biased.”

From a human resources perspective, Osowick said, Cummins must be able to attract and retain the best talent in the world — people who want to work in a community that promotes diversity and inclusion. He asked the council to make the ordinance changes as the protections are an important factor whether some employees join and stay with Cummins in Columbus, where nearly 8,000 of the global company’s 54,600 employees work.

Jackie Patterson, who is a Cummins installation quality assessment leader and executive director of the Indiana Transgender Wellness Alliance, told the council that she transitioned to be her true self and found support and help, including the culture, at Cummins. Saying the ordinance change won’t change the way people feel, Patterson said it could help those who have been fired from jobs or find themselves homeless because of gender orientation or sexual identity.

Describing the ordinance change as a monumental undertaking, she said the ordinance is needed, particularly in this area of the state.

Punishing Christians for beliefs

But some within Columbus’ religious community repeated concerns that the new protections will punish Christians who do not want to violate their religious beliefs by providing services to same-sex couples, such as making a wedding cake for a same-sex union.Pastor Randall Burton, Northview Assembly of God, said he had been told that the human rights ordinance issue wasn’t a religious issue, which made him wonder why many of the speakers were bringing it up.Burton questioned whether being protected for his speech within the four walls of his church would extend outside those walls if he decided to preach on the streets and around the world about Christian beliefs.

“Why do we have to legislate immorality?” he asked.

After Burton spoke, Ramirez told the audience that the proposal does not change any practice of religion, which is protected by the First Amendment.

She reminded Burton that Columbus’ religious community is allowed to read the Bible in public on the Columbus City Hall steps leading up to the National Day of Prayer in May, for example. The ordinance change has no effect on that, she said.

Eric Miller, an attorney who founded Advance America, an Indianapolis organization describing itself as pro-family and pro-church, said the proposed ordinance changes would discriminate against a religious business owner based on that owner’s belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.

The furor over protected class status for the LGBT community in communities around the state stepped up last year with the Indiana General Assembly’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, supported by Columbus native Gov. Mike Pence.

Cummins was a leading opponent of the religious objections law, which some critics maintained was anti-LGBT. Some other Indiana cities have explored sexual orientation and gender identity protections, including Elkhart, Goshen and Carmel, but those measures are on hold.

Miller said the wording of the Columbus ordinance means that a religious business owner could be ordered to participate in an activity that violates his religious principles.

“Words are important,” Miller said. “Specific words are important.”

Miller also argued that the ordinance gives power to appointed rather than elected officials to impose thousands of dollars in fines if a business owner refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage.

He told the council that if it wanted to protect the rights of everyone in Columbus, approving the ordinance changes would mean a religious business owner’s rights were not being protected.

Miller described Columbus as a welcoming community, one in which things seemed to be working pretty well in the free-enterprise system that doesn’t seem to need the ordinance modification.

There is no real discrimination in Columbus, Miller told the crowd. The issue is needlessly dividing the community, he said.

Governed by laws of the state

Leah Jackman-Wheitner, a Columbus consultant and executive coach, reminded council members that the ordinance change doesn’t take away the religious community’s right to believe as they wish but does mean they can’t discriminate.“Why is it OK to discriminate against LGBT?” she asked.She pointed out that it took laws in the 1960s to force the religious community in the South to allow African-Americans to eat at public lunch counters. Then, the religious community argued that the races should not mix, she said.

“It’s the exact same rationale,” she said. “We’re governed by the laws of the state. But as a government, we create laws that support the entire population.”

When councilmen asked a few questions before voting, Ramirez said, she handed a note to human rights commission chairman Ian Kohen that she was about to go off script.

Ramirez said she had never told her own story before but felt she should during the meeting.

When she interviewed in Columbus with the Human Rights Commission about two years ago, she was driving out of town and stopped for gasoline, Ramirez said. At the station, two young men — both white, with a Confederate flag on their truck — began calling her names and telling her to go back to Mexico, she said.

Ramirez was initially taken aback by the behavior and wondered about whether she should come to Columbus if offered the job. She took the job knowing full well that discrimination does occur in Columbus, but with the reassurance the human rights commission is also in the city.

Admitting her voice was shaking as she told the story Tuesday, she said she remembered how she felt at that moment — unwanted and somewhat unsafe.

“I still remember that, and I still haven’t healed completely,” she said.

And for LGBT individuals, who have experienced the same sort of treatment, it must shake them to the core, she said, especially feeling government is not behind them.

Kohen received hugs and handshakes after the vote, saying people were genuinely touched by the city’s support.

The commission is open to speaking with any church or with any religious group about the commission and the ordinance, and what the change means, he said.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “The goal of this is equality for everyone.”

What action means

Columbus is considering adding four protected classes to its human rights ordinance — veterans, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. Any change to the ordinance must be approved by the council in two readings of the ordinance at public meetings. The change was approved on first reading Tuesday.

The city’s ordinance now protects the classes of race, religion, color, sex, disability and national origin and ancestry against discrimination but handles complaints about age, gender identity and sexual orientation through a voluntary mediation process. If one side of the complaint doesn’t want to participate, the voluntary mediation cannot move forward.

Elevating those classes to protected status means that veterans, those 40 and older, as defined by the amendment, and members of the LGBT community would have the same rights protecting them against discrimination in Columbus that are offered to the other protected classes.

What's next

Amendments to the Columbus Human Rights Ordinance will be considered by the Columbus City Council at 6 p.m. Sept. 15 at Columbus City Hall.

Watch the meeting

To watch the Internet-streamed coverage of Tuesday night’s Columbus City Council meeting, visit columbus.in.gov/ and click on video streaming at the bottom of the page.

Pull Quote

“It’s critical that everyone is treated equally in the areas of employment, housing, education and public accommodation.”

Tim Shuffett, Columbus City Council president

Pull Quote

“Why is it OK to discriminate against LGBT?”

Leah Jackman-Wheitner, Columbus consultant and executive coach

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