Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Human Rights - Coming to Jackson Anytime Soon?

For several years, the Jackson Human Rights Commission has been putting up a proposal for a Civil Rights Ordinance to the Jackson City Council. It has been repeatedly referred back to the committee for further work. Here's the first paragraph of the latest draft:
It is the intent of the City of Jackson that no person be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of his or her civil or political rights or be discriminated against because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, educational association, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or HIV status. As used herein, "perceived" refers to the perception of the person who acts, and not to the perception of the person for or against whom the action is taken. (Source: PFLAG)
Last night, the City Council tabled it until the July 14 meeting, and referred it to the city attorney for review. Ten people spoke up about the ordinance at the meeting, myself included. Only two were against it: one representative of the American Family Association, who apparently has spoken before the council on this issue before, and a deacon of Village Hope Church who spuriously linked the issue to same-sex marriage, saying that people had voted against same-sex marriage in this state and that the voters would therefore be against this, too. Personally, I think that a lot of people put marriage in a protected category and would still be willing to extend basic civil rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. To make a jump from a vote several years ago on same-sex marriage to this issue is a logical fallacy. And those of you, gentle readers, who know that I also teach English composition, know how I feel about logical fallacies.

I gave a copy of a letter to the council members, and then read it after introducing myself. Here's the text of the letter (I omitted the paragraph about businesses when reading it, because an HRC member had already covered this ground):

Dear Jackson City Council Members,

I represent a small historic church in Jackson County, Michigan. However, despite our small numbers we have taken an active roll in our community in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Because of this work and our stance of being a Welcoming Congregation for lgbt members, we have now and have had in the past many members of our church who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They are a valued and important part of our worshipping community, and we celebrate this diversity. Many of our members are residents of the City of Jackson, and even more work in the City of Jackson.

Recently I asked members of my congregation to share letters with me about the discrimination they have faced. I received a dozen letters from people about the discrimination they have experienced or witnessed. One wrote about being asked, like other employees, to write a short description of herself for the company newsletter. She modeled hers after the others, but was told they couldn’t mention her partner. Another told of how he had invited his coworkers to his wedding, and then was repeatedly harassed as a result. Others talked about real harassment and even violence in their schools growing up. These are the true experiences of Jackson residents. They have lived lives in which they have experienced repeated discrimination and harassment.

I talk specifically about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people because I know many of them, have heard their stories of being fired or denied housing because of being open about who they are. But these stories serve as a perfect example of why we need an enumerated list of groups that experience discrimination to be in our policy. Because existing laws have not protected them. The truth is, that without enumeration, it is legal to discriminate on the basis of anything we haven’t specified it is illegal to discriminate on. And I do know people who have been denied employment because of their marital status, number of children, pregnancies, weight, and many of the other things we are talking about this evening.

One thing I would like to specifically address, as a clergy person, is the role religion has played and will play in this question. Often, the major objection to passing an ordinance such as this is a religious objection. But it is important to realize two things. First, the religious people in this area are not unified on this issue. Second, this is not a matter than should be decided on the basis of religion. We have separation of church and state, and it is your role to decide what is best for the city, not ours. This brings me to another point. People often argue, mistakenly, that churches will have to hire people that they do not agree with, either because of sexual orientation, or because of religion itself. This is erroneous. Separation of church and state guarantees that there is a religious exemption—we do not have to hire anyone that we have a legitimate religious objection to for a position in a religious institution.

For businesses that are not religious institutions, the truth is that many would welcome your passing an ordinance like this one. It makes it easier for people to do what they know is right, rather than bending to pressure, when they have a strong rule to rely on. Making it clear that we are a city that promotes good work environments will make us a more attractive location for employers. Many Fortune 500 companies, and some of the largest companies in our states, have similar policies that they have created. Experience with states and municipalities that have non-discrimination policies show it is also false that such policies lead to more litigation.

Thank you for your time shared considering this important matter. If there is one thing I have learned in my own experiences with various minorities, it is that the more you come to know people whose experiences and lives are unlike your own, the more you come to understand the inherent worth and dignity that all humanity possesses, and the more you see the necessity of laws that uphold and protect those who experience discrimination and hate crimes simply for being who they are. We appreciate your important work in legislating on behalf of all of us.

1 comment:

Caroline said...
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