By September 13, 2017 Read More →

Human rights commission ordinance passes after long discussion in Fairmont

By CARTER WALKER

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — By a vote of 7-2, the Fairmont City Council voted Tuesday to pass the human rights commission ordinance.

The ordinance, number 482, repealed the old human rights commission and instituted it again with updated language.

The previous ordinance gave the commission authority to hold hearings and serve as a quasi-judicial body, which can review cases and potentially issue fines.

This new ordinance states that the commission will serve primarily in an educational capacity, informing groups of equal-rights laws as well as making recommendations to the city council.

The meeting drew a large crowd of speakers, some of whom lined up in front of the Public Safety Building hours before the meeting began.

More than 80 speakers shared their views with the council, with the majority being opposed to the ordinance. Speakers were limited to two-minute comments, but even so the meeting lasted more than three hours.

Much of the controversy surrounding the ordinance was because the updated ordinance includes two new protected classes, gender identity and sexual orientation, under a statement of policy section.

“It is the public policy of the city to safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to be free from all forms of discrimination, whether as a result of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, blindness or handicap, and to provide for an inclusive community for all residents, businesses and visitors,” the ordinance reads.

“The denial of these rights to properly qualified persons by reason of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, blindness or handicap is contrary to the principles of freedom and equality of opportunity and is destructive to a free and democratic society.”

Many of those against the ordinance were in opposition because they felt that the language in it would allow men in women’s bathrooms and vice-versa.

Though the ordinance does not contain the word bathroom anywhere in it, some thought it was vague enough to be used in such a way.

“You’re opening up Pandora’s Box,” one of the 51 opposition speakers said.

“Living in a county with a high rate of sex offenders, it concerns me greatly,” another woman opposed to the ordinance said. “I will be walking my granddaughters to the bathroom till they’re 20 years old because of safety issues.”

Many urged the council to put the ordinance to a public vote, and one even called for council member Marianne Moran’s resignation for comments she made on Facebook.

A total of 34 speakers spoke in favor of instituting the ordinance. The first to speak on either side was Reverend D.D. Meighen, retired United Methodist minister, who said before the meeting that he wanted to “set the record straight” on the original intended purpose of the ordinance.

“On May 23 we presented a report to (the council) in a work session, and we shared that

the commission would have no enforceable power; we wouldn’t regulate businesses; and our powers would be through references, referral, information, persuasion and education,” Meighen said.

Others who spoke in support said that the ordinance was necessary to ensure the inclusion and protection of all members of the Fairmont community.

“You may not like the idea of a category of special protection for these groups, but they are targeted for crimes,” a supporter said. “If you read this ordinance there is no way you could deduce this narrative that has come about in terms of this is going to be about a bathroom.”

Mayor Tom Mainella said the misconception about the ordinance being a bathroom bill came from the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, which he said spread this narrative to create opposition to the bill. He stressed after the meeting that it was not intended as a bathroom bill.

The Family Policy Council of West Virginia is a Charleston-based lobby group that says it defends faith, family and freedom

Allen Whitt, president of the Family Policy Council, came to the meeting to speak in opposition of the bill. He read notes from a phone call he said he had with Marion County Assistant Prosecutor J.T. Hodges, in which he said Hodges told him a male would not be charged with a crime if he simply disrobed in a female facility.

Mainella said he received a message from Hodges during the meeting that said he did not say that to Whitt. When Whitt refuted this, he was removed from the building by Fairmont Chief of Police Steve Shine.

“The language, or the word bathrooms, is not in the language of the ordinance. … But a city ordinance does not operate in a vacuum,” Whitt said. “The Supreme Court has defined that places of public accommodation shall include private areas like bathrooms, showers, dressing areas. So the ordinance itself doesn’t have to have the actual word bathroom in it because it gets its authority from Charleston, which gets its authority from Congress, of which the Supreme Court then has ruled on a congressional law which defines bathrooms as part of this.”

Before the vote, the council members thanked all in attendance, and those who called, for their civility in this matter.

Council member who voted in favor of the ordinance were Marianne Moran, Ron Straight, Philip Mason, Dora Grubb, Robert Linger, Frank Yann and Mayor Tom Mainella. Against were Fran Warner and Brad Merrifeild.

“I’m really disappointed that the vote went the way that it did because I believe that the mayor and city council did not listen to the people,” Jim Solomon, pastor of Galilean Baptist Church, said.

Rikki Pauley-Butler, who was one of the individuals who worked to revive the human rights commission, said she was very pleased with how the council voted.

“I can’t wait to work on some projects,” she said. “Being in my mid 30s I had never witnessed anything (like this meeting), and it kind of broke my heart.”

Email Carter Walker at cwalker@timeswv.com and follow him on Twitter at @carterw284.

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