September 2, 2011

Fairness Ordinance Hits Rural Wall

The Commonwealth
Fairness Ordinance Hits Rural Wall
By: Jacalyn Carfagno, WEKU News

In part one WEKU reported on the experiences and challenges for young people growing up gay in Kentucky. In part two, she examines the complex and sometimes acrimonious debate over fairness ordinances. They’re designed to protect Kentuckians from discrimination based on sexual preference or identity.

Jeff Osborne, who’s pastor of the Berea Evangelistic Church, speaks for many rural Kentuckians.

"Well, there’s no question in my mind that homosexuality is wrong. Why? Well, the Bible teaches, both Old and New Testament, that homosexuality is a sin."

According to U.S. Census figures, there are really two Kentuckys. There’s rural Kentucky where very few gay couples are found. Then, there’s urban Kentucky where people are much more willing to identify themselves as same-sex couples. Communities like Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky recorded more than 10 same sex couples per thousand. The statewide average is just under seven couples.

Anecdotally, discrimination against sexual orientation is more common in rural Kentucky. For example, over the summer in Hazard, two gay men were ejected from a public swimming pool. In Harlan County, a lesbian couple reports they were beaten because of their sexual orientation.

Jordan Palmer, president of the Kentucky Equality Federation, said city government in Hazard, which has a history of tolerance, reacted quickly to the discrimination, but the story isn't the same everywhere.

"You travel outside of Hazard to Harlan or Hindman or Jackson, which is in Breathitt County, it's a completely different attitude. Gay people are beaten, they're openly and blatantly terminated because of their sexual orientation."

Hoping to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, several communities have turned to fairness ordinances. They’ve been enacted in the urban centers of Louisville, Lexington and Covington. But, similar ordinances in relatively-rural Berea and Richmond have stalled.

Given the stalemate in rural Kentucky, proponents shifted their efforts to Frankfort. Palmer says a state law fashioned after a fairness ordinance would ensure all Kentuckians enjoy the same protections. Plus, he says only the state can effectively enforce the law.

So, the Kentucky Equality Federation is pushing to add sexual identity to the jurisdiction of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, which has authority throughout the Commonwealth.

"it protects smokers from being fired from a job but not because of sexual orientation or gender identity. That agency is heavily funded and they're the ones that need jurisdiction over sexual identity to be effective,” Palmer said.

But, political opposition remains strong. In 2004 three-quarters of voting Kentuckians drew the line at same-sex marriage, voting in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban it. The opposition dominated many rural counties, where nearly 90 percent of those people casting ballots voted to ban gay marriage, a practice that was already illegal in the Commonwealth.

Since that time, according to Palmer, even the local fairness ordinances have come under attack in Frankfort.

"The Kentucky House has tried three, four times to revoke the authority of municipalities to pass equality laws…." He thinks this is likely to happen again in the next legislative session because of publicity surrounding the effort in Berea.

Berea minister Jeff Osborne, speaks for many people who see the fairness ordinance as a violation of their property rights.

"My main concern is the loss of freedom myself, the loss of my freedoms. I believe that as a property owner I should have rights to say what should go on or shouldn’t go on on my property."

Nevertheless, the political and economic pressures on landlords and lawmakers continue to grow. Census figures again indicate Kentucky was among the states with the largest increase in same-sex couples. As the number of openly gay people grows, so does their political and economic power…ensuring the debate over discrimination based on sexual orientation is not over in Kentucky.

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