Letter signers support fairness proposal _lowres

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Proponents and opponents of a fairness ordinance crowd into the East Baton Rouge Metro Council chambers hoping to speak during the regularly-scheduled Metro Council meeting Wednesday night. The meeting was adjourned without a vote as time expired after lengthy debate from proponents and opponents.

In a last-ditch effort to convince the Metro Council to approve a local law banning discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people, some of Baton Rouge’s most prominent business and civic leaders have penned an open letter in support of the so-called “Fairness Ordinance.”

More than 65 people, representing local business, nonprofits and religious organizations, signed the letter that was sent to the Metro Council on Tuesday — a likely response to a letter signed by almost 40 local pastors opposing the ordinance and sent to the council last month.

The Metro Council is expected to finally vote on the controversial ordinance at its meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the City Hall council chambers.

Three weeks ago, scores of proponents and opponents crowded the council chambers to speak on the measure. The more than three hours of public comment pushed the council meeting to its legal limit, and a vote on the ordinance was kicked to this week’s meeting.

The signers of the letter supporting the ordinance, written on Be Fair Baton Rouge letterhead, identified themselves as residents who have “invested in our community, supported its growth, worked for its improvement, and are committed to its future.”

The letter states, “Baton Rouge cannot afford to put itself at a competitive disadvantage by sending the message that some of our neighbors are not welcome. Passage of the Fairness Ordinance will ensure Baton Rouge can compete for, attract and retain talent in a global economy. The Fairness Ordinance would also affirm we are a city that judges people only on their merits and believes in the timeless adage of treating others as we want to be treated.”

Many of the people who signed the letter were also present at last month’s meeting to speak in favor of the ordinance, including Kevin Reilly, chairman and president of Lamar Advertising; Luke Kissam, Albemarle CEO; famed LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and Rabbi Barry Weinstein.

There will be no public comment period at Wednesday’s council meeting, since a public hearing has already been held on the “fairness ordinance,” but it will be the council’s first opportunity to debate the measure.

The Metro Council is widely expected to reject the measure, based on the publicly stated positions of a majority on the 12-member council.

Council members Ryan Heck, Scott Wilson, Tara Wicker, Buddy Amoroso, Joel Boé and Trae Welch have all said they intend to vote against the ordinance.

Even the sponsor of the ordinance, C. Denise Marcelle, said she thinks the measure is doomed.

“It’s unfortunate,” Marcelle said. “I think minds were made up before the meeting. I believe that they’re looking at it from a very shallow standpoint. People are going to find reasons not to support it, but if all of them say they don’t believe in discrimination, then I don’t see why it would be a problem to vote to support this ordinance.”

Family Forum President Gene Mills said Tuesday that calling the proposal a “fairness ordinance” is a misnomer.

“The so-called fairness ordinance actually should be called the homosexual affirmation ordinance,” Mills said.

He characterized the ordinance as illegal government overreach that attempts to bully people into accepting lifestyles that go against their religious beliefs.

“Intolerance in the pursuit of tolerance is simply hypocrisy,” Mills said.

The ordinance would make Baton Rouge the third city in the state, along with New Orleans and Shreveport, to ban discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing and public accommodations.

The Metro Council over the years has faced several votes forcing members to weigh in on issues affecting the LGBT community and has always voted against measures intended to support them.

This vote has garnered more attention than in past years, and last month was the first time LGBT opponents were outnumbered by supporters in the council chambers.

Eric Dexter, president of Forum 35 and a leader in the Be Fair Baton Rouge campaign, said it would be a “black eye” for the capital city if the measure fails. But even if the measure fails, Dexter said, he thinks people will continue to champion the issue in other ways.

“There’s been a lot of positive momentum that’s come out of this effort,” Dexter said. “Eventually people will see who they really elected and maybe they won’t be there next time.”

In their letter to the council last month, a group of pastors opposing the ordinance said they believe gay people deserve respect but felt that “to memorialize controversial sexual practices into a municipal policy of respect and special protection goes against both our conscience and this council’s ability to provide the same ‘rights’ to all East Baton Rouge Parish residents.”

The letter was signed by the leaders of various parish churches including Woodlawn Baptist Church, Healing Place, Jefferson Baptist Church, Bethany World Prayer Center, Hosanna First Assembly and Christian Life Fellowship.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.aheadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.