Despite the Baton Rouge Metro Council’s high-profile rejection of an ordinance to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians earlier this year, the Capital City still saw an increase in a ranking that evaluates whether government policies are friendly to gay people.
In the Human Rights Campaign’s third annual Municipal Equality Index, Baton Rouge received 22 out of 100 points, which still puts the city among the lowest-scoring municipalities out of the 353 cities reviewed in the report. The Human Rights Campaign bills itself as the country’s largest civil rights organization promoting LGBT equality.
The first year the report was released, Baton Rouge received only two points, and last year, it received seven points.
Baton Rouge got credit for having a nondiscrimination policy for city employees and because local law enforcement has a liaison assigned to engage with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.
The city also received one out of three available points for the ultimately doomed attempt to pass the anti-discrimination ordinance earlier this year. It received another three out of five possible points because of “Leadership’s Public Position on LGBT Equality.”
Mayor-President Kip Holden cautiously backed the controversial ordinance this year in a speech right before the council vote, stopping short of giving it a ringing endorsement. But Holden fought a state ban on gay marriage when he was serving as a state legislator more than a decade ago and has signed an executive order ensuring city employees cannot be discriminated against based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We are happy to see the score improve, and we can attribute that to the work of groups like the CCA and more courageous politicians and elected officials,” said Dave Samuels, board chairman for the Capital City Alliance, a Baton Rouge-based equality group. “On the flip side of that, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
Baton Rouge missed out on at least 18 points on the index for lacking legal protections for LGBT people in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. In August, the Metro Council voted against legislation that would have created those protections.
The proposal, dubbed the “fairness ordinance” by supporters, was backed by many high-profile business and civic leaders and organizations. It was vigorously opposed by various religious leaders and the powerful Family Forum, the state’s most prominent social conservative organization.
The vote drew hundreds of people to City Hall for a public debate of the merits of offering more legal protections for LGBT people. The Metro Council, whose members lean socially conservative, voted 8-4 against the ordinance.
Elsewhere in the state, New Orleans received a score of 83 points, and Shreveport received a score of 47 points. Both cities have adopted local laws to ban discrimination against LGBT people. Metairie was ranked for the first time this year by the index and received a score of 15.
Baton Rouge officials have had a strained relationship with the LGBT community over the past several years.
Before the fairness ordinance came up for a vote, previous Metro Councils took up a non-binding resolution, called “One Baton Rouge,” that would have expressed tolerance for gays and lesbians. The measure was voted down in 2007 and then withdrawn for lack of support in 2010 after it came under fire from conservative and religious groups.
Last year, Baton Rouge landed in the national spotlight after The Advocate reported the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office had been undertaking sting operations to arrest gay men in public parks for consenting to sex later at private homes, citing an unconstitutional anti-sodomy law.
The Louisiana Legislature considered a bill this past year to remove the outdated anti-sodomy law from the books, and the Metro Council considered a resolution showing support for the legislative bill. However, both bodies rejected the measures, and the unconstitutional law is still on the books.
“LGBT people in Baton Rouge find it to be a warm and welcoming place, but elected officials have not yet caught up with the public in Louisiana and particularly in Baton Rouge,” said Bruce Parker, an administrator with both Equality Louisiana and Louisiana Progress, two statewide equality groups.
Despite the failure of the fairness ordinance, Parker said the debate in some ways may have elevated Baton Rouge’s LGBT profile.
“The people who paid close attention left feeling better. The business community made it clear that they want LGBT people to have employee protections,” he said, but added that there are still many in the community who feel insecure without state or local laws.
After the ordinance failed, Councilman John Delgado, one of the council’s loudest LGBT supporters, announced that he would initiate a petition for a referendum to change the city-parish’s plan of government to mandate a fairness policy.
The petition, with about 8,500 signatures, could call for an election, so voters — not elected officials — could decide whether to codify a nondiscrimination policy that applies to city employees. Unlike the proposed fairness ordinance, voters could not impose regulations on private business owners.
Delgado said he needs support from advocates to help circulate the petition.
“It’s still well within the realm of a possibility, but (LGBT advocates) wanted a cooling off period,” he said. “We need to get the organization back in gear and get people motivated to support a fairness ordinance to move this forward.”