CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — After a large number of people offered public comments on Charles Town’s nondiscrimination ordinance at Monday evening’s council meeting, the council voted to approve the ordinance’s first reading.
Mayor Peggy Smith said Tuesday the measure passed on a vote of 7-2 after five hours of public comment, with councilmen Chet Hines and Bob Trainor opposing the ordinance. Smith said the contents of the ordinance and the process of passing it and allowing the public to comment has been a careful, methodical one.
“This decision has been hard for me, too. This isn’t something we took lightly,” Smith said. “Discrimination has existed for years, and that part (of the ordinance) wasn’t a problem. I was discriminated against in the workforce and saw men being paid higher than I was.”
The sections of the ordinance that drew comments – and criticism – from nearly 100 people who attended the council meeting, were those pertaining to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) protections, including bathrooms for transgendered persons.
Smith said it seemed like more people spoke against the ordinance than in favor of it, but she said those who support it were well-represented.
“I think the focus got shifted to the bathrooms. That’s how it’s been across the nation, too, but the bathrooms are only a part of (the ordinance). That and the religious aspects were the things opponents brought up the most,” Smith said.
More than 30 individuals commented during the city council meeting Monday evening. Some of the speakers commented on behalf of organizations, like Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, a group that advocates for fair treatment and civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Schneider said the ordinance is necessary to make sure that all residents of Charles Town are safe. Moreover, he said residents can’t wait for the state to enact an ordinance that encompasses all communities in West Virginia because instances of discrimination are real and do occur in Jefferson County, as well as throughout the state and country.
Allen Whitt, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, a right-wing policy group that attempts to influence laws and lawmakers in defenes of religious freedom, spoke against the proposed ordinance.
In his remarks, Whitt said the proposed ordinance is a brace the community doesn’t need, that it doesn’t need to be fixed. He said the ordinance “is looking to add in a solution to a problem that isn’t there.”
Several individuals expressed concerns about unforeseen consequences, such as men or women posing as members of the opposite gender in order to prey on children in public restrooms.
On the other side, several individuals also expressed the need for the nondiscrimination ordinance to send a message of inclusiveness and acceptance. They said having such an ordinance in Charles Town would keep everyone in the community safe from discrimination and attract future businesses and residents.
Smith said the ordinance deals with discrimination related to housing. She said one woman who spoke at the meeting said she was looking at a rental property and was getting ready to sign the lease. However, when the woman came to sign with her partner, the landlord turned the couple away. The ordinance also contains protections for veterans.
The large number of people giving comment on the ordinance delayed council business, Smith said, and she said public comments lasted for five hours. She said some of the people who commented were from Berkeley County and other parts of West Virginia.
“We didn’t get to the rest of the council business on the agenda until after midnight, but everyone has a right to state their opinion. We brought in as many chairs as we could and we didn’t want to turn people away,” she said.
In the Eastern Panhandle, Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown have passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances.
The ordinance will be up for its second reading at the Charles Town City Council’s June 21 meeting. The meetings are typically on Monday evenings, but Smith said city offices will be closed Monday, June 20 in observance of West Virginia Day.
-Staff writer Mary Stortstrom can be reached at 304-263-8931 ext. 138 or www.twitter.com/mstortstromJN.