Board considers broader protections

The Columbus Human Rights Commission has created an ad hoc study committee to determine how age, sexual orientation and gender identity could be added as protected classes in the city’s human rights ordinance.

The idea to change Columbus’ ordinance came up during the controversy over the approval of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during this past legislative session. Some who have protested the act say it allows discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity because Columbus does not identify these as protected classes in the ordinance.

In 2006, the commission made changes to the rules and regulations of the human rights ordinance, which allowed the commission to prohibit discrimination based on age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Commission chairman Ian Kohen said this seems like the perfect time to change the ordinance to make Columbus more accepting to all people. To change the ordinance, Kohen said the commission will need approval from the Columbus City Council.

Brian Walters, board member for PRIDE Alliance of Columbus, said now is the time to make changes in light of the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

PRIDE Alliance focuses on building a community of inclusiveness, equality and justice, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Three other communities — Martinsville, Muncie and Hammond — have made changes to their respective Human Rights ordinances since the passage of RFRA to address sexual orientation and gender equality, Walters said.

“Columbus has always prided itself on being forward thinking and being ahead of the curve on a lot of things,” Walters said. “If we lag behind all the other communities, it reflects badly on Columbus.”

Kohen put vice chairman John Stroh in charge of the four-person subcommittee, which will meet as early as next week.

Stroh will be joined by commissioners Gil Palmer, Annette Barnes and Sameer Samudra on the subcommittee.

Kohen said the subcommittee will give a informal update at this month’s commission meeting and will present a formal update at the June meeting.

Columbus’ human rights ordinance prohibits discrimination based on employment, housing, education, public accommodation or credit for the protected classes of race, religion, color, sex, disability and national origin or ancestry.

Complaints about discrimination involving age, sexual orientation and gender identity are processed through the Commission’s Voluntary Mediation program, according to the commission.

Following the April 1 primary debate between Republican incumbent Kristen Brown and city councilman Jim Lienhoop, Brown stated she would be willing to bring the matter before the city council after receiving guidance from the commission. Brown added she would support a public discussion of the issue before the council.

Lienhoop said Columbus can’t afford to have the practice of discrimination or even the perception of it.

“This would send a very strong signal to the LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender) community that they are an equal partner, as every other citizen is in Columbus,” Kohen said. “To be able to feel that kind of support and that kind of inclusiveness is really important.”

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The ad hoc subcommittee will give the Human Rights Commission an informal update during this month’s meeting and a formal update on progress at the June meeting.

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Coverage of Columbus Human Rights Commission’s annual meeting