Advocates for the so-called “fairness ordinance” were disappointed — but not surprised — by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council’s resounding vote Wednesday to reject a proposed local law banning discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The proposal, backed by many high-profile business and civic leaders, generated weeks of passionate, and sometimes uncomfortable, debate about the legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the capital city. But not long after it was introduced, it became clear that the concept was unlikely to win over a majority of the Metro Council. Ultimately, the council voted 8-4 against the measure.
Council members supporting the ordinance were its sponsor, C. Denise Marcelle, and John Delgado, who both issued emotional pleas to their colleagues to back the measure in the name of fairness. Chandler Loupe and Donna Collins-Lewis, who both have been quiet about their positions in recent weeks, joined them.
Those in opposition were council members Trae Welch, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Scott Wilson, Ronnie Edwards, Buddy Amoroso, Joel Boé, Tara Wicker and Ryan Heck.
There was no public comment on the issue Wednesday night. Members of the public got their chance to speak out at the council meeting last month, taking to the podium one after another for three hours of testimony. But the council chambers were still filled with interested watchers — the vast majority in support and adorned with “Be Fair Baton Rouge” stickers.
Marcelle’s ordinance would have established a local law to prohibit discrimination of LGBT people in areas of housing, employment and public accommodations, as well as setting up a mechanism for people to seek legal redress if they believe they have been discriminated against.
But council members’ debate mostly focused on the larger principles at stake, not the specifics they were considering. Their speeches were limited, but heated.
“I think we can all agree that what is at stake here is human freedom. Human freedom — do we really want to go on record here today as opposing that?” Delgado said. “I know I don’t, and I won’t.”
He said a vote against the ordinance would put council members on the wrong side of history, predicting that LGBT residents will inevitably be guaranteed legal protections by future legislative or judicial actions.
“Those who oppose them now will look like George Wallace standing on the steps of the school house door, trying to keep two young African-American students from entering the all-white University of Alabama,” Delgado said.
Amoroso said he was disturbed by a variety of news stories across the country where Christian business owners like photographers and wedding cake bakers have run into legal trouble for refusing their services in gay weddings.
“It’s a violation of religious liberties,” he said, noting that the proposed ordinance would have the same effect.
Amoroso also said that while LGBT people may be discriminated against, he didn’t think it rises to the level of needing the kind if government protections created during the Civil Rights era for black people who suffered a long history of being discriminated against by businesses and government.
Marcelle countered that Amoroso shouldn’t be comfortable with LGBT people enduring any kind of discrimination.
“Discrimination is discrimination. Whatever level it’s on, it’s wrong,” she said.
Marcelle told her colleagues they were making excuses to vote against the ordinance because they were uncomfortable supporting the LGBT community.
“If they don’t want to vote for it, they’ll find reasons not to vote for it,” Marcelle said. “But if you want to say that gay and lesbian people are subhuman — then say that.”
Marcelle also said in recent weeks she had received an intimidating and anonymous note at her house, taking aim at her ordinance. She also said someone cut the wires of her security system.
Edwards said she felt the ordinance left out too many groups of people who are also discriminated against, including women, people living in poverty, people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, overweight people and ex-convicts.
Edwards added that an ordinance alone would not end discrimination.
“It does not change hearts, it does not change minds, it does not change relationships,” she said.
She also said she would prefer for the issue to go to a vote of the parish because “a decision of this magnitude” should not be decided alone by the 12 members of the Metro Council.
In recent weeks, Delgado has said that if the measure failed he would push for residents to sign a petition to put an anti-discrimination measure on the ballot. But that new proposal would be less comprehensive than the rejected ordinance, focused solely on city-parish employees.
After the vote, Marcelle said she was open to Delgado’s plan to take the issue directly to voters.
“I’ll knock on doors and collect signatures with him,” she said.
Jennifer Reilly, an organizer with the campaign Be Fair Baton Rouge, which advocated for the ordinance, said she was disappointed by the vote, but encouraged by the public’s outpouring of support.
“I’m energized by the tremendous civic participation that has been a part of this dialogue,” she said. “I believe that the majority of citizens in Baton Rouge believe in this ordinance and believe in fairness.”
She said she is hopeful the supporters of the measure will continue to push in other avenues.
Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s most prominent social conservative organization, said after the vote that Delgado owes the parish an apology for his inflammatory comments and labeling people who disagree with him “prejudiced.”
He noted during the last council meeting, Delgado made a reference to “Christian equivalent of Sharia law” that opponents took offense to.
“That’s not beneficial,” Mills said. “That’s not the spirit of this debate.”
Delgado quipped that he would apologize, “when hell freezes over.”