Commissioners study wording of officially drafted anti-discrimination ordinance
A couple of “quick questions” yielded a near 90-minute debate Monday when the City Commission dissected the language of an anti-discrimination ordinance drafted by Mount Pleasant’s contracted attorney.
A template for the law was proposed to commissioners by a local group last November with hope to implement protection against discrimination for people in multiple categories, particularly sexual orientation and gender identity — neither of which is covered by the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
On Monday, in the third work session for the developing law, commissioners voiced concern over the wording of areas describing types of agencies and circumstances that would be exempt from penalty in cases of discrimination complaints.
Commissioner Nancy English questioned the phrasing of an exemption that would allow religious organizations to restrict use of its facilities and services, regardless if the occupant was of the same denomination or moral tenet.
The discussion that ensued over what the exemption implied took up most of the work session.
“Some of the (other exemptions), I thought, were so broad that anybody could claim anything was a religious belief, and there were some that were so narrow,” said City Attorney Scott Smith. “What we tried to do is something fairly down the middle. Obviously, the language isn’t hitting the mark yet, because everybody’s interpreting it differently.”
“A religious organization or institution may restrict the occupancy of any of its housing facilities or accommodations operated as a part of its religious activities to persons of its denomination or those who conform to the moral tenet of that religious organization or institution.”
—Exemption classification in 170.07B of the draft
Among the most iterated points was whether a religious institution should be able to limit access to its facilities, such as a church’s banquet hall or gymnasium, if it largely services it out to the public.
Some commissioners questioned if a religious facility, despite use, should be considered a public facility at all.
But by the end of the session, most commissioners advocated to — for the time being — leave the wording as is. Mayor Bruce Kilmer said doing so would help avoid referendum of the ordinance once it’s adopted by the city and not limit the community outreach of religious agencies.
“It’s a community asset,” said Vice Mayor Kathy Ling. “So you have a basketball facility, and there are churches that still believe that blacks aren’t equal. Would you feel comfortable saying, ‘OK’?”
Kilmer agreed, but still voiced some concerns.
“I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it’s right not to treat sexual orientation equally,” Kilmer replied. “But I don’t know that we can tell a church what we think is right. I think we’ve stepped over into their first amendment rights.”
Some clarity as called for in other areas of the drafted law, such as the an exemption that addressed professional counseling services in the case counseling reasonably conflicts with “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Charlie Farnum, a local United Methodist pastor who has been part of the group supporting the ordinance, sat in on Monday’s work session.
He applauded the commission’s perseverance in discussion and decision to leave wording because, as he said, it would allow religious institutions to delegate use of its accommodations and facilities based on its mission.
“It’s so that (churches) can say ‘We allow wedding receptions for male-female couples, but not male-male couples,’” Farnum said, referencing the length of time such a position been around. “It’s not like someone just (pulled) that out of a hat.”
Commissioners opted to take time to reach out to members of the religious community for feedback and to continue to contemplate the draft, while minor changes to wording are considered.
City Manager Kathie Grinzinger said an additional work session could be scheduled in the coming weeks, or a special work session, in order to keep development on a reasonable timeline.
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