Letter signers support fairness proposal _lowres (copy)

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Proponents and opponents of a proposed anti-discrimination "fairness ordinance" crowd into the Baton Rouge Metro Council chambers in August 2014 to speak on the measure.

A local “fairness ordinance” that seeks to bar discrimination against anyone in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexuality and gender identity appears headed back to the Baton Rouge Metro Council.

The council has previously rejected attempts to pass measures addressing discrimination against LGBTQ people, but supporters say they think there’s a good chance of it passing this time because the council’s makeup and public attitudes have changed since the last failed attempt in 2014.

The previous efforts sparked heated public debate as gay rights advocates and the Louisiana Family Forum and conservative Christian groups argued over whether a local anti-discrimination resolution or ordinance was warranted and the impact it might have.

The proposed civil rights ordinance headed the council’s direction this year — although no specific timeline has been set for it yet — comes from a local nonprofit advocacy group that has been working on it for the past two years. Five members of the 12-member Metro Council have already pledged their support, and two others say they’re willing to support if concerns they have about the working draft are addressed.

"It's a different climate today," said Christine Assaf, vice president of the Progressive Social Network, the local non-profit organization spearheading this latest attempt.

"We feel like it's a basic civil rights discussion the city is still having; We're just making sure it doesn't stop," said Assaf, who's also the mother of a LGBTQ-identifying child. "But this is not a 'gay' bill."

Assaf points out there are no protections in place at the city-parish level for anyone based on race, disability, religious and political affiliation and/or veteran status either.

To get it passed, though, they’ll have to overcome what is likely to be vigorous opposition.

The Louisiana Family Forum led efforts to scuttle previous attempts to pass such city-parish ordinances. The group's leader is speaking out against it again saying the latest effort is another attempt to advance an agenda of sexual politics under the guise of unification.

Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, said the proposed ordinance has nothing to do with unifying people in the community.

"Nothing could be further from the truth,"  Mills said in an emailed statement Monday. "Proponents employ divisive rhetoric and try to shame opponents in order to win regardless of the cost to our city and actual relationships."

He urged council members "to vote no on this latest effort to divide Baton Rouge."

In the past, the Louisiana Family Forum’s leaders have framed LGBTQ protections as an attack on the religious freedoms of business owners and argued proponents failed to prove that gay people had suffered from "economic disparity or political powerlessness."

Joseph Traigle, co-writer of the twice-failed "One Baton Rouge" resolution which sought a formal expression of tolerance for marginalized groups at the local level, said organizations like Louisiana Family Forum rely on a lie to raise money and marshal opposition.

"The lie is that gay people choose to be gay,” Traigle said. “Why would a person choose to be gay, so they can have to deal with bigots and homophobes?"

Traigle said he and his partner of 25 years ended up leaving Baton Rouge and moving to North Carolina because they no longer felt welcomed in the aftermath of the unsuccessful attempts in the past to get Metro Council support on anti-discrimination measures.

On why such legislation is still important he said, "it opens the city up for jobs, growth and demonstrates a commitment to diversity."

The last time the “fairness ordinance” was brought before the Metro Council, in 2014, it had the backing of the business community and civic groups but still failed in an 8-4 vote.

The 2014 vote transpired during the height of national debates surrounding gay marriage and at a time when Christian businesses in various parts of the country were under attack for refusing service to gay individuals.

"Those conversations have passed on," Assaf said. "At this point, there's a little bit more support than there was then."

She is hopeful for a better outcome this year because half of the council members who voted in opposition of the 2014 ordinance are longer in office. And one of the still serving council members who voted against the ordinance then now says she supports it.

"I basically had a year of education, meeting with different people, and I've just evolved to the point where I support the item," said Councilwoman Chauna Banks.

Council members Erika Green, LaMont Cole, Donna Collins-Lewis, and Chandler Loupe have come out in early support of the proposed measure from the Progressive Social Network.

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"I don't fear backlash for wanting to treat people well and expecting others to do the same," Cole said. Green, who intends to co-sponsor the ordinance, called it "necessary."

Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg has agreed to sponsor the measure as well, although she has voiced expressed concerns over some elements of the proposal.

Councilman Matt Watson offered similar comments when asked about the proposal.

"There are some significant pieces of this proposal which needed to be fixed before I could be supportive," he said in a prepared statement. "But I think we're well on our way of finding something that most reasonable people can support."

Council members Scott Wilson, Dwight Hudson, Tara Wicker and Denise Amoroso all said they'll be voting 'no' when the proposal comes before the council. Councilmen Trae Welch did not return calls seeking his position but voted in opposition during the 2014 vote.

Kelly Bienn, spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said the organization does not yet have an official position on the issue.

"We are doing a thorough review of the ordinance," she said in a prepared statement. "We have not yet brought it to our board for an official vote."

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome has declined to speak on her position as well. Her spokesperson said the mayor wants to see a final draft first and have follow-up conversations with Progressive Social Network officials before commenting.

Leaders of the nonprofit group argue adopting protections for the LGBTQ community would place the city-parish more in line with Broome's public proclamations of being a more progressive city that's "open for business" to outside entities.

The national Human Rights Campaign routinely rates cities on non-discrimination ordinances they have folded into their local laws and policies and then scores them in a report. Those scores can often weigh in to whether corporations will establish operations in certain locations, according to Xavier Persad, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign.

"When cities pass local protections, it sends a clear message they are open to everyone," he said. "Businesses want to know their employees, if they choose to relocate or expand, are protected from discrimination. Businesses value diversity."

Baton Rouge's current score on the Human Rights Campaign’s index is 42 out of the maximum 100. That’s far below Shreveport's score of 77 and the score of 97 for New Orleans.

Assaf said the Progressive Social Network has spent the past two years studying the failure of the last attempt before sitting down with parish leaders on crafting something new that could pass the muster of the Metro Council.

She declined to provide a copy of a draft of the group’s current proposal, saying it’s not yet ready for public release. But as with previous attempts, the ordinance would provide protections not only to the LGBTQ residents in the parish, but include any discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, age, ancestry, nationality, sexual orientation, and political and religious affiliations.

The anti-discriminatory policy would extend to employment, housing and public accommodation, giving a wider scope of protection other than the executive order former mayor Kip Holden signed that protects city employees from discrimination.

Anti-discrimination laws are in place at the state and federal levels for a large majority of people who fall in one of those protected classes but don't extended to sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Progressive Social Network’s proposal would also create a commission of volunteers who would serve as the advocacy group that reviews, investigates and mediates claims of discrimination in the parish.

New Orleans has anti-discrimination policies and has had a human rights commission since 1991, while Shreveport passed an ordinance protecting lesbian, gay and transgender residents in 2013.

Vincenzo Pasquantonio, executive director for the Human Relations Commission in New Orleans, said the commission there provides an administrative process to residents that often deescalates discrimination issues and provides training and resources to the public.

"Having a local commission fills an important gap," Pasquantonio said. "Otherwise, a lot of the time, the only recourse available is litigation and that, as we know, has its own issues in terms of equity. Access to low-cost legal services can be difficult for some people."

The make up and legal authority of a proposed commission in East Baton Rouge Parish is a point of concern for Councilwoman Freiberg.

"I need to see who's on there and what the legal chain of action will be," she said.

There's no definitive timeline yet on when the ordinance will get introduced for adoption.

"We want to get it right," Assaf said. "This is about our city making a statement. "We want everyone to be treated the proper way."

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.