06 Oct Indy Star: Carmel narrowly passes LGBT protections
CARMEL — After six weeks of debate, the Carmel City Council narrowly voted Monday to approve an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Mayor Jim Brainard once had hoped to fast-track the ordinance, which was sponsored by six of the seven council members when he introduced it Aug. 17. But socially conservative organizations — and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups — quickly made the affluent suburb of Indianapolis a battleground in a statewide fight over LGBT rights versus religious freedom.
A deeply divided council ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of the ordinance after more than six hours of public comment over three meetings.
City Council President Rick Sharp was joined by Ron Carter, Sue Finkam and Carol Schleif in support. Some have said many of the religious arguments used against the ordinance were once used to deny African-Americans and women their rights.
Sharp said he is a Christian, and he believes discrimination and intolerance are wrong. “I just don’t find a justification for intolerance at any point,” he said.
Council members Eric Seidensticker, Luci Snyder and Kevin Rider voted against the ordinance but said they would instead support a resolution saying Carmel is a welcoming community, which passed later Monday 7-0. Snyder and Rider had been sponsors of the ordinance, but in the past six weeks they indicated they wanted changes made, including a less harsh penalty, perceived legal deficiencies in the wording and more exemptions for Christian-owned businesses. All three say they are against discrimination but couldn’t support Carmel’s ordinance without some or all of those changes.
“If you make me choose between God and government, I’m going to choose God every time,” Rider said.
The council eliminated a change made Thursday by the Finance, Administration and Rules Committee to require first-time offenders to receive a warning rather than a fine. Now, the city’s attorney will have the discretion to issue a warning or a fine up to $500 for the first offense. Additional offenses can be fined up to $500 daily until the act of discrimination has been resolved.
Monday, City Hall and the council chambers were packed with supporters and opponents. As the council voted, supporters erupted into cheers and began clapping heartily. Opponents sat in silence.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church passed out signs that urged the council to protect religious freedom. Parishioners, including children, sang hymns and said prayers before the meeting. Supporters passed out red “Zero Discrimination” buttons and wore red.
Many opposed to the ordinance told the council it was unnecessary and divisive. Against constitutional rights to practice religion. An insult to decency. An attempt to pass Sharia Law. Legalizing sinful behavior. A way to provide the LGBT community with special rights.
The Rev. Charles Phelps of Colonial Hills Baptist Church said he thinks many Carmel residents fear the ordinance’s impact on religious freedom and worry they will be labeled bigots for disapproving of same-sex marriage. He thinks many were afraid to speak openly against the ordinance.
“They do not want to be viewed as discriminating,” Phelps said. “They do not want to be called bigots.”
Supporters spoke about the need to attract economic development. To urge the council to send the message that Carmel is a welcoming community. To ensure no one is discriminated against.
Several were near or in tears, as they talked of loved ones who are gay. Teresa Booth, fighting back tears, said she had lived in Carmel for 50 years and lost a grandson who was gay. She supported the ordinance “to put these young people on a level playing field.”
Near tears, Annette Gross, a Carmel LGBT activist whose adult son is gay, said he had to leave the last meeting because he was so hurt by opponents’ comments.
Carmel High School graduate Amanda Joseph said she is gay and urged the council to pass the ordinance. She said it was difficult to be subjected to hateful speeches by opponents of the ordinance during the meeting and worried she could be discriminated against, pointing out she could be evicted from her apartment just for being gay. She said it’s a real concern and she tries to live in secret.
“Please vote for me to be protected to live here and to be happy,” she said.
Statewide groups have marked Carmel as a battleground of LGBT rights versus religious freedom.
Socially conservative groups such as Advance America, the Indiana Family Institute and the American Family Association of Indiana have been urging the council to change or vote down the ordinance. They say such local ordinances would interfere with the ability of the deeply religious to live by their beliefs. They have been joined by a loose coalition of local churches that have been urging the council to pass the resolution declaring Carmel is a welcoming community.
The Indiana Family Institute sent an email to supporters Monday urging them to contact Carmel council members.
“It is very clear that what is happening in Carmel is just a warm up for a larger fight brewing at the Statehouse in Indianapolis to force this same sort of law on all Hoosiers statewide,” the email stated.
Carmel businesses and community leaders have been organizing support, including OneZone, the local chamber of commerce for Carmel and neighboring Fishers. They say Carmel needs to take a strong stance in the wake of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act to show it’s a welcoming community that wants to foster economic development.
They have been joined by Freedom Indiana, a grass-roots organization advocating for the law, and Tech for Equality, a group of businesses organized by former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle. Both groups are pushing for expanded statewide civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers.
Oesterle said everyone was at the Carmel meeting because the socially conservative groups had set fire to the state by urging RFRA be passed in the first place.
The Carmel ordinance also includes classes such as race and religion, which already are protected under state and federal law. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not.
Columbus, Zionsville, Terre Haute, Hammond and Muncie have added LGBT protections to city ordinances recently, joining long-standing LGBT civil rights protections in about a dozen Indiana communities, including Indianapolis.
But social conservative groups stopped recent efforts to expand nondiscrimination ordinances in Elkhart and Goshen to include sexual orientation and gender identity.