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City of Paducah Passes 'Fairness Ordinance' Providing LGBTQ Protections

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

The City of Paducah now has protections in place for people with complaints of discrimination based on  gender identity and sexual orientation. Commissioners voted Tuesday night to adopt what LGBTQ advocates call a ‘fairness ordinance.’

Chris Hartman, Director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said Paducah makes nine cities in the commonwealth with such protections. “I think the momentum, the movement, is obvious. The LGBT community is seeing greater protection. This our first western Kentucky city now with an LGBT fairness ordinance and I do not believe it’s going to be the last,” he said.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS
Chris Hartman of the Fairness Campaign gives out hugs after the city's vote to enact the ordinance.

The measure passed four to one after lengthy debate and public comment. An amendment to include exemptions for religious business owners did not garner enough votes. State law, however, has similar exemptions. The ordinance overhauls local Human Rights Commission to focus on gender identity and sexual orientation complaints. All other complaints, such as race, disability, age and religion, will be directed to the state commission.

Update Jan. 13: In a follow-up conversation, Mayor Brandi Harless assured that while the HRC is shifting the way it allocates resources (previously conducting investigations for all complaints and now investigating LGBTQ-related complaints), the commission will still be charged with maintaining their role in facilitating the filing of complaints to the state commission. "It's not necessarily a narrow focus towards LGBTQ issues, this is a pretty expansive ordinance, actually," she said. The HRC is processing LGBTQ issues locally because the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights does not offer that protection, she said. She stressed that the local HRC is still the "first stop" if someone feels they've been discriminated against.

The city commission chamber overflowed with community members on both sides of the issue. Many were told to listen from the adjacent hallway. Mayor Harless held up a large stack of people requesting to comment. She allocated a total 45 minutes and tried to alternate between supporters and opponents.

Supporters felt the city needed to have protections for LGBTQ individuals and also saw the ordinance as an opportunity to send a message of 'inclusivity.' Opponents felt the ordinance discriminated against people with religious beliefs and could force some business owners into arrangements that go against their moral convictions. (More on the public comments below.)

The ordinance also adds ‘age’ as a complaint that would be sent to the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. And the measure reduces the size of the local HRC from nine members to five, with no provision for an executive director. The state commission does not handle complaints involving gender identity and sexual orientation. The city commission would investigate the cases with legal assistance if necessary.

Commissioner Richard Abraham was the only ‘no’ vote on the ordinance. Prior to the vote, he proposed including an amendment that said “No business owner shall be forced to participate in any activity that violates his or her deeply held religious beliefs.” His was the only vote in favor of the amendment.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS
So many people showed up to the meeting that the fire marshal had people move into the adjacent hall, to listen through the open doorways.

Community Members Supportive

Community members who expressed support of the ordinance said it’s a matter of treating people fairly and with respect.

One resident said it sends a message that Paducah is a diverse community that respects inclusion. “And that's the image we want to project to others outside of our community. We want it to be welcoming here.” Other speakers echoed this sentiment. One woman said Paducah is “one family” that works to make sure everyone is taken care of and is valued and respected.

A local business owner said he knows what discrimination feels like, having been discriminated against as a person with a disability. He said he does business with people he doesn’t agree with, yet treats them like human beings. "Just be professional and treat people equally, I don't think that's asking too much,” he said.

Some in support of the ordinance also expressed a concern over the proposed amendment to allow for religious exemptions. One person said it would render the ordinance “useless” if enacted.

Community Members Opposed

Community members who opposed expressed concern that religious rights are in the ‘crosshairs’ with ordinances like the one passed Tuesday night.

One resident said he doesn’t support intolerance or discrimination and felt that preventing discrimination is a just cause, but felt the ordinance was unnecessary. He said it ‘legislates morality’ and it makes LGBT lifestyles equivalent with heterosexuals.

A local pastor said he is concerned that the ordinance jeopardizes religious freedom, particularly in officiating weddings. He wondered how it would affect pastors, people of faith who own rental properties, Christian book stores, radio stations and day care. He said he has friends in the gay community and wants them to be protected but doesn’t believe in elevating gay rights to civil rights status.

Some cited the ‘cake case’ currently in the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a Christian bakery and a gay couple. One community member suggested waiting until the court decides on this case before enacting the ordinance.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS
Commissioners Sarah Stewart Holland and Richard Abraham debated Abraham's proposed amendment calling for religious exemptions.

Commission Discussion

Addressing various concerns, Commissioner Sarah Stewart Holland citeda recent studyconducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that found a majority of LGBTQ Americans reported harassment and violence based on their identity. She described specific stories from LGBTQ people in Paducah. She said the argument that “there were no complaints” to the HRC was probable to the fact that the HRC didn’t have jurisdiction over the issues (hence the ordinance). As to the ‘discrimination against Christians’ argument, Holland said she, too, is a Christian and said the issue isn’t “definitional.” She said Christianity has room for debate as denominations have various rules about what’s allowable or acceptable. She said she is worried about “defining Christianity through narrow theological debates.”

Commissioner Richard Abraham said he doesn’t believe anyone wants to see anyone in the community hurt or being deprived of basic needs. He said the issue falls into two general groups. One group is looking for equality and equal protection. The other group is looking at liberties guaranteed to each individual - religious rights, free speech and discrimination. He said as an elected official he has to represent the whole of a community as best he can and as such proposed his amendment. “It's not perfect, but nobody in this room is,” he said. He added that no matter what passes, people are going to have to get along with each other. As to the notion of a ‘fairness ordinance,’ he asked, “Fair for whom?”

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS
Paducah City Attorney David Denton explains a state law protecting religious freedoms.

Both commissioners debated the amendment allowing for religious exemptions for business owners. Commission Sandra Wilson asked City Attorney David Denton to clarify the state law regarding religious freedoms. Denton said while the state has various laws cover human rights matters, it does not cover gender identity and sexual preference, thus leaving the door open for communities to extend protections. Denton described a Kentucky statute 446.350, enacted in 2013 that says a “government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion.”

The protection is in the state books, Denton said, and the City of Paducah has no power to diminish that. “That is essentially saying to cities ‘do not think you can start putting ordinances out there that burden businesses who have sincere, legitimate religious beliefs,’” he said. He noted that the fairness ordinance could be amended in the future, if needed.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS
Paducah Mayor Brandi Harless

Mayor Brandi Harless acknowledged that the HRC ordinance doesn’t trump state or federal law. She said a complaint brought to the HRC would lead to an investigation and the result of that investigation would be a letter of opinion. Because the HRC should help with conciliation or mediation, she said, that opinion can stay confidential until both parties say it’s not. That opinion could be carried to a courthouse, but she said it likely then wouldn’t be the only form of investigation.

“Adding this language into our ordinance is making an expression and a gesture of support to a community that has felt ostracized.” She referred to watching a documentary “Not Throwing in the Towel,” which Maiden Alley Cinema screened last year, about a lesbian couple from Murray. She said the audience conversation in that screening offered a safe setting for dialogue. “My background is in public health. And in public health we talk a lot about prevention… And I would make the case that by doing this and making this expression we are preventing the issues that you’re all concerned about in our community. Because we are coming out and saying we support this group of people. And they deserve our affection and… our love.”


Amendment for religious exemptions

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Enacting the ordinance

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Read the ordinance (scroll to Page 28)

Watch the meeting

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Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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