Friday, September 18, 2015

My Remarks to the Carmel City Council’s Finance, Administration and Rules Committee on the Proposed Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to the Carmel City Council’s Finance, Administration and Rules Committee on the subject of proposed ordinance D-2224-15 (found on page 57 of the linked .pdf file), commonly referred to as the “Anti-Discrimination Ordinance”. I was speaking on behalf of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations. It was the understanding of the Commission that several amendments had been proposed for the ordinance and that the Committee was going to be discussing those amendments in addition to the ordinance itself. Thus, our Commission met last week to discuss the amendments and to determine what message, if any, to send to the Committee. I was asked to address the Committee on behalf of the Commission.

Below are my prepared remarks. Note that I’ve made one minor correction (I received a piece of demographic information from a member of the Commission following the delivery of my remarks and I’ve incorporated that into the following remarks). More importantly, at the beginning of the Committee meeting, we learned that the proposed amendments were not being considered; thus, I omitted the portion of my remarks that had been written specifically to address the amendments.* Nevertheless, I’ve included that portion of my remarks but I’ve marked that portion in green.

Councilor Snyder and other members of the City Council. My name is Michael Wallack and I am here on behalf of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations. Thank you for allowing our Commission an opportunity to speak before the Finance Committee this evening. When I rose with Dee Thornton and Raju Chinthala to speak in favor of the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance at the August City Council meeting, our remarks were limited to telling you that our Commission had voted — unanimously — in favor of adoption of the ordinance. Tonight, I’d like to offer some additional substantive thoughts.

But first, I’d like to give you a little bit of demographic information about the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations. I want you to understand that this Commission represents a true cross section of the population of Carmel in all of its diversity. The other members of the Commission have given me permission to share with you a little bit about who we are. At present, there are nine members of the Commission, five men and four women. Five of the members are white. But four are not. Two are Indian, one is African American, and one Japanese. Three are Christian, one is Mennonite, two are Jewish, one is Muslim, and one is Hindu. Four are immigrants (from Russia, Japan, and India). All but one are married or widowed and most (or even all) are parents. Our Commission includes both the Chief of Police and the Director of Human Resources for the Carmel Clay Schools. Oh, one more thing: None of the members of the Commission are gay, lesbian, or transgender, though some have family members who are. And in the interests of transparency, I spent some time as the chair of a gay rights organization.

So I hope that you recognize that our Commission is not merely some isolated group of Carmel residents but, rather, a group of people who reflects many of the differences to be found amongst, and hopefully appreciated by, the population of Carmel.

With regard to the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, the Commission remains strongly in favor of its passage. We met last Thursday and enjoyed a vigorous discussion about the ordinance and its meaning and intent. One thing that never came up as a matter for discussion was the idea of not adopting an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in Carmel. Phrases like “zero tolerance for discrimination” were uttered frequently and not only by the members of the Commission who hail from minority communities.

I want to briefly address a few matters that were nearly completely overlooked during the public discussion last month. One repeated refrain suggested that the ordinance would provide some kind of special status or treatment for the LGBT community. I seem to recall one person asking when he, as a straight, white, Christian, male would have a law to protect him. This sort of query and talking point has become quite common in the discussion of expanding civil rights laws. But it is a completely flawed argument. You see, the proposed ordinance doesn’t protect gays and lesbians. No. It protects people and it protects them on the basis of their sexual orientation. You know what? Straight is also a sexual orientation and the proposed ordinance will protect that straight, white, Christian, male on the basis of his sexual orientation just as it will protect a lesbian. The ordinance doesn’t protect Muslims. It protects people and it protects them on the basis of their religion. Christianity is protected in the same way that Islam or Judaism or Hinduism would be protected. So that straight, white, Christian, male will be given the same protections from discrimination. Similarly, the proposed ordinance will protect that man from discrimination on the basis of his gender and on the basis of his race. Caucasians and Christians are entitled to and given the same protections from discrimination as are members of minority racial and religious communities. It’s simply that because those are the majority groups, they are least likely to be discriminated against in the public sphere. So, the question isn’t which sexual orientations, religions, or races are protected. They all are and they all should be. And that’s what this ordinance would do.

It is important to remember and understand that the focus of the discussion may have been on protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but this ordinance protects far more people from far more types of discrimination, including discrimination based on age, gender, disability, veteran status, and marital and family status. Thus, for example, this ordinance would protect people on the basis of whether they are married, have children, are pregnant, and so forth. The opponents of this ordinance didn’t discuss opposition to any of those sorts of protections at all. They focused their ire on the notion of being prohibited from turning away members of the LGBT community.

Let’s be clear that this ordinance would not stop anyone from voicing their disapproval of anyone or any activity. It won’t interfere with what people can teach their children or what clergy can say from their pulpit. But it will protect the vulnerable from the negative impacts of those expressions and beliefs in the public sphere.

Furthermore, the ordinance protects people from far more than discrimination in the provision of flowers, wedding cakes, or photographs. It protects people against discrimination in housing and employment, too. It protects people in areas of public accommodation and education and contracting and an assortment of other public activities. In other words, it says that here in Carmel, in the public sphere, we deal with other on the basis of merit and character and not on the basis of characteristics and prejudices.

With regard to the amendments presently before the Finance Committee, our Commission spent some time discussing their meaning and potential ramifications. And, as I mentioned above, the end result was the repetition of the phrase “zero tolerance for discrimination”. In fact, there was some degree of discomfort expressed with some of the exclusions included in the original draft of the ordinance, but none of that discomfort was enough for us to withhold support for the ordinance. The same cannot, however, be said for these proposed amendments.

The biggest concern that our Commission had with the expansion of the exceptions was that they looked like Carmel was actually offering its residents and businesses a veiled license to discriminate. This is especially true of the exceptions in paragraphs 7 and 8 which are exceptionally broad. One member of our Commission expressed some sympathy for the idea that a photographer who was uncomfortable with a same-sex marriage ought not be compelled to accept that business. But when the scenario was changed so that the wedding involved an interracial couple, interreligious couple, or previously divorced couple, she withdrew her concern and recognized that we cannot permit characteristic-based discrimination in the business realm.

Similarly, the expansion of the exception in paragraph 1 seems to go far beyond the core functions of clerical and ministerial practice that should be and are given protection. There is already ample and evolving state and federal law with regard to the distinctions between ministerial and non-ministerial functions within religious institutions and schools. Expanding this exception seems unnecessary at best and, more likely, problematic.

One last point that I’d like to make. Think back to the arguments against this ordinance that you heard, almost all of which were focused on protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. If you look back in history, sadly not too far back in our history, you will find many of the same arguments were raised against the right to interracial marriages; you will find many of the same arguments were raised against integrating schools, lunch counters, water fountains, and swimming pools. You will find many of the same arguments were used against women’s suffrage and the expansion of civil rights to protect other disadvantage groups or people against whom discrimination was deemed acceptable.

Times change but the arguments remain the same.

The next time Money Magazine ranks cities, we don’t want to read that Carmel is no longer the top place to live because it tolerates discrimination. We don’t want to read an article touting our roundabouts but noting that we declined to adopt a human rights ordinance. And we certainly don’t want to read about a business that chose to locate its headquarters in another community because of concerns about how Carmel views or treats minorities.

The Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations falls squarely on the side of expanding protections. We believe that Carmel must celebrate its diversity. That is part of being the world-class city that we view ourselves as or aspire to be. In our modern, global and competitive world, we need an ordinance that tells both our citizens and those who look at our city that we respect diversity and have little tolerance for discrimination, little tolerance for intolerance. This ordinance is an important statement and an important protection we owe to those among us who may be the subject of discrimination or even bigotry.

We urge the Finance Committee to reject the proposed amendments and to adopt the proposed ordinance.

I welcome any questions that you may have.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

*In my prepared remarks, I mention the exceptions included in the amendments that we understood to be before the Committee. I cannot find a version of the proposed ordinance online that includes those proposed amendments. Thus, I’ve included them here. New text is shown in blue. Deleted text is shown in red and strikethrough. I’ve only included the paragraphs from Section 2(c) of the proposed ordinance for which amendments had been suggested:

(1) Religious worship and clergy while engaged in religious duties or activities; including, but not limited to, schools, athletic and other educational programs; however, non-religious, for-profit business activities by entities or activities owned or engaged in by religious institutions or clergy are not excepted excluded.

(7) The refusal to provide off-business premises personal services.

(8) The refusal to create or produce custom products requested by customers.

Update: I forgot to mention that the my remarks were mentioned and quoted both by The Indianapolis Star and by The Current in Carmel (who initially misspelled my name, but corrected it upon request) and I’m shown briefly in the story on Fox 59 (sadly you can’t really see my cool purple & pink tie.

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