There’s an old saying that the two things you should never watch are sausage-making and law-making. Good as that advice is, it can be very enlightening (if somewhat nauseating) to be present as the democratic process unfolds.
Yesterday, I accompanied the President of Indiana Equality to South Bend, where the Common Council was to deliberate (for the third time) on a proposal to amend that city’s Human Rights Ordinance. The existing Ordinance allowed the Human Rights Commission to mediate complaints of discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing based upon race, gender, national origin and religion; the proposal being debated was to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list.
I was there to offer “expert” testimony–my status as an expert by virtue of an imposing title and the fact that I live more than 50 miles away. Opponents insisted that the city had no legal authority to enact the changes, and that the Ordinance was so poorly drafted that enforcement would be impossible. Since the language was identical to that in the Indianapolis Ordinance–which has been in effect for seven years without challenge or problem–that wasn’t exactly a winning argument.
The most audacious claim made by those who opposed the new language, however, was that the standard religious exemption–specifying that the provision would not apply to churches and religious institutions–was inadequate because it would not protect “religiously motivated” discrimination. This is similar to other arguments we’ve been hearing lately: that allowing female employees access to contraception violates the religious liberty of Catholic employers, or that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech” rights of the bullies. The argument is apparently that I should be able to pick on gay people—or black people, or women, or Jews–if my motivation is religious. This is an argument one occasionally hears from those who still believe that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a violation of their individual rights.
There were two hearings: a committee meeting that began at 4:00 pm and the Council meeting, which began at 7:00–and lasted until 1:00 a.m. (And you wondered why there was no blog post this morning!) The hearings were Democracy In Action. (Please note capitals!)
I’ve been to similar debates before, and I fully expected that the conservative churches would bus in lots of their parishioners in order to dominate, if not fill, the chamber. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the “good guys”–wearing big blue paper buttons provided by Indiana Equality–vastly outnumbered the folks wearing red stickers emblazoned with “No Special Rights.”
I was also impressed with the testimony of the very long line of supporters–beginning with the young Mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who began the public testimony portion of the hearing with a brief but powerful speech about the importance of being an inclusive community and doing what is fair and right.
There was a tall, elderly African-American woman who identified herself as a grandmother, and told the councilors they needed to “do what’s right.” There was a representative of the AFL-CIO, who delivered an impassioned plea for inclusion and equality. A young service-member back from two tours in Afghanistan looked straight at the members of the council and said, ”I’m sitting in the front row, right there.” (He pointed to his seat.) “If you vote tonight to tell me that I am not entitled to the same rights I fought to protect for all Americans, then I want you to come look me in the face and tell me why.” There were several ordained ministers, and a bible scholar from Notre Dame, all contesting the notion that being “Christian” meant opposing equality for GLBT citizens.
Those who testified were young and old, black and white, gay and straight. (A surprisingly large number, in fact, were straight.)
The response by opponents was predictable–and much as they tried to argue on legal and policy grounds, the inevitable ugliness soon emerged to discredit them. It was the parade of the “usual subjects”–this is a “Christian Nation,” sexual orientation is a choice, same-sex relationships are “disordered” and “immoral,” protecting GLBT people from discrimination will increase the incidence of AIDS. A nurse graphically described medical problems she attributed to anal sex (the “ick” factor). Several people asserted that the measure would “promote” homosexuality and the dreaded “gay agenda.”
And I’ve never heard so much talk about who will use which restrooms.
Virtually all of the testimony from opponents was based upon religion: the grandmother who assured the council that a “yea” vote would be a vote against the will of God (she evidently talked to him recently…), the used car salesman/pastor (I am not making that up!) who quoted selected bible verses, and the concluding litany by the self-described “Good man of God” who threw the kitchen sink at the issue: gays cause disease, sin and early death, and they need to repent. Reparative therapy works. It’s a choice. And repeatedly, that prohibiting him from firing gay people, telling him he couldn’t refuse to rent an apartment to a gay person, would deprive him of his constitutional right to religious liberty.
The council voted 6-3 to amend the Ordinance. I’m not sure who was more persuasive–those of us who supported the measure, or the homophobes who demonstrated why it was necessary.