ELKINS, W.Va. — A group fighting to make Elkins a more inclusive town has gathered considerable community support in preparation for this Thursday’s regularly scheduled City Council meeting, where Council will vote on a resolution of nondiscrimination.
Fairness for Elkins members have collected “Declarations of Support for Nondiscrimination” from more than 60 city businesses including signatures of business owners, faith leaders and community organizers as they prepare for Thursday’s meeting.
The declaration states the signing official believes no one should be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and that their business has a nondiscrimination policy that includes protections for the LGBT community.
It also states the signing official supports the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the language of a city-wide nondiscrimination ordinance and a West Virginia statewide nondiscrimination law. Participating owners have displayed decals representing their business as supporters of non- discrimination.
Packets have been distributed to Council members containing copies of the signed declarations, sample resolutions passed by the cities of Buckhannon and Charleston and several testimonial letters drafted by supporters. The group also plans to present a petition showing community support at Thursday’s meeting.
Priscilla Gay plans to speak during the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting. She grew up in New York but said her best memories were of visiting Elkins for three weeks every year. She attended West Virginia University before moving to Charleston and most recently relocating to Elkins.
“As soon as I left for college I never really lived in New York again. I love West Virginia,” she said.
Formerly an attorney for the West Virginia Legislature and currently teaching at the University of Charleston, Gay recalls in 2000 when a nondiscrimination bill failed on the floor of the West Virginia House of Delegates by one vote. She said it’s long overdue that measures be passed on the local and state level.
“I want to live in a community which is inclusive and respects all of its members,” she said.
West Virginia Wesleyan College professor Jessica Scott, an Elkins resident, said Council’s support is important for the future of the city.
“These are our neighbors,” Scott said. “We all live together in this city and I think that it’s really important to acknowledge that and to collectively build the most inclusive kind of place to live because I think we all want an environment where we don’t feel vulnerable at work and feel we can do our best work without being afraid of being fired if found out to be gay or transgendered.”
Scott said gay and transgendered individuals often are afraid they won’t get hired for a job because of who they are, which creates an impediment to the kind of work they can do.
“We have a lot of people leave West Virginia and I think we’ve created a situation where people feel like to be successful they have to leave,” she said. “We don’t want that – We don’t want our young, bright people moving out of West Virginia we want them here. We want people to stay and live in these communities because all kinds of diversity makes our community stronger, more creative, and I think that (improves) business as well.”
Elkins resident Leah Devine said passing this resolution is important because all humans deserve basic human rights, which includes being allowed housing and employment without being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This is important for Elkins because we’ve generally been a welcoming town – a great town – to both people who live here and visitors,” Devine said. “When I lived in Charleston, I saw (a similar resolution) pass and it helped our local businesses. It made us even more welcoming to tourists and new residents and I believe had positive effects on the local economy, so Elkins should have this as well.”
Mike House, the co-pastor at Ambassador Baptist Church in Elkins, has gathered a group to stand in opposition of the resolution. He said several members of his group plan on attending Thursday’s meeting and he expects to speak against the resolution during public comment.
House said he intends on presenting Council members with a letter of opposition signed by 100 church and community members that addresses the group’s concerns with the resolution.
“Those that are wanting this resolution already enjoy the same civil rights that we do. They’re seeking a nondiscrimination policy, but they’re not (currently) being discriminated against,” House said.
He said another issue he has with the resolution is that he believes it would protect a “behavior” rather than a civil right.
“When you consider sexual orientation and gender identity there’s hundreds of different orientations and it’s much more than just homosexual or transgender – there’s many others. It opens sort of a Pandora’s Box of other sexual orientations that would demand rights,” he said.
House said he doesn’t believe discrimination is currently a problem in the community, and therefore doesn’t need to be addressed.
“It’s going to stir up things that don’t need to be,” he said. “What it amounts to is they’re wanting the city to normalize and make acceptable a behavior and it’s not the city’s place to do that. It’s not the city’s place to normalize a behavior.”
Bill Calhoun is one of four faith leaders who signed the declaration of non-discrimination in support of Fairness for Elkins. Recently retired from the Woodford Memorial United Methodist Church in Elkins, he was pastor for seven years before retiring and buying a house with his wife in Elkins. He said he plans to speak at Thursday’s meeting.
“All people are important and my faith says we are all created in the image of God. I think that all people are equal and all are loved, deserve love and are worthy of love,” Calhoun said. “Christ looked after those that were cast aside who were just left and ignored. If I’m going to be faithful to him, then that’s my calling – is to embrace those who he embraced.”
Calhoun said it is not his place to judge others.
“If I take the scripture seriously, it tells me not to judge and if I take the scripture seriously it says to love my neighbor,” he said. “When Jesus used the illustration of the neighbor it wasn’t what we think of as a neighbor – it was people who had been cast aside and ignored. That definition of neighbor is very far-reaching and inclusive and that’s who I’m called to embrace.”
A proposal to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance was originally introduced and indefinitely tabled at a city Rules & Ordinances Committee meeting at City Hall Feb. 13. First Ward Councilman Lonnie Randall and Third Ward Councilman Mark Scott voted against the measure while Fourth Ward Councilwoman Nanci Bross-Fregonara voted for the measure.
On March 2, group members pled their case to the city Personnel Committee. Second Ward Councilman Mitch Marstiller and Fifth Ward Councilman Joe Sabatino passed a measure to draft a resolution based on a similar one passed in Buckhannon, and to add it to the agenda of the March 5 regularly scheduled council meeting. However, due to inclement weather, the meeting was canceled.
In previous interviews with The Inter-Mountain, Marstiller and Bross-Fregonara have expressed their public support of the resolution.