Lansing council hears testimony on proposed human rights ordinance

By Todd A. Heywood

cutline: Students who said they were members of Young Americans for Freedom protest against a proposed human rights ordinance outside the Lansing City Hall Monday night. BTL photo: Todd Heywood

LANSING - The Lansing City Council took another step towards passing a comprehensive human rights ordinance Monday night, as the eight-person council heard testimony on the ordinance from a standing room only crowd.

The ordinance was introduced Oct. 30 and supported by the entire council. The ordinance is expected to pass on Dec. 11, giving city residents an option when faced with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, as well as source of income, housing status, student status and military discharge status. It will be the first time in 10 years the capitol city will have such an ordinance on the books.

Voters defeated a similar proposal in 1996.

While citizens gathered in the city council chambers on the 10th floor of City Hall, a small group of young people, identifying themselves from the Young Americans for Freedom groups at Michigan State University, Olivet College and Ohio State University stood in the City Hall Plaza posing for photographs with signs that read "Straight Power," and "End Faggots."

A check on the national Web site for Young Americans for Freedom showed no affiliate organizations at Ohio State University or Michigan State University.

Bernie Meisner, who spearheaded to winning 1996 campaign, called the ordinance "disgusting" and told the council "I'm opposed to this homosexual special rights ordinance." But Meisner was in the minority at the hearing.

While Meisner specifically discussed sexual orientation and attacked the gender identity portion of the ordinance, others attacked the gender identity portion, using text lifted directly from an email alert sent out by American Family Association's Gary Glenn.

Randy Morgan, who gave no address, said the ordinance would have far reaching implications. "You are about to make your mothers, daughters, wives to have to share bathrooms and showers with men," he told the council after reading a quote from openly gay Mass. Congressman Barney Frank. The quote included in an e-mail sent out by Gary Glenn, and available on the AFA Web site. Morgan made no mention of the source of his quote.

Pastor David Stephens, of Lansing's Life Christian Church, said his church was considering starting a preschool program again, but was concerned the ordinance would force his church to hire homosexuals or cross dressers. "If we refuse to hire a cross dresser or a homosexual, would we have violated this ordinance?"

While Stephens did not stay for the remainder of the meeting, council member Dunbar and City Attorney Brigham Young both told the audience that the church would not be forced to hire a homosexual or a cross dresser if there was a religious reason for the discrimination or an area specifically protected by the proposed ordinance.

Michael Carlson of Lansing said, "I think Lansing is a good city. I think passing this ordinance will make it a better city."

Civic groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union's Lansing branch, Zonta International, and the Lansing Association for Human Rights all testified in support of the ordinance.

Many who were present in 1996 for similar hearings noted how civil the proceedings were, and left commenting on how much change there had been over the years. Activists hope that if the ordinance goes to a vote of the people again, it will be passed. They note that Ingham county is one of two counties to reject Proposal 2 two years ago, and Lansing rejected Proposal 2 this past election.

Mayor Virg Bernero said he supported the ordinance "unequivocally," and in an exclusive interview with BTL following the meeting, said the groups like American Family Association of Michigan, and Young Americans for Freedom, both of which have mounted attacks on the ordinance, have it all wrong.

"They call themselves family and they don't represent my family values. They think they have cornered the market," the outspoken mayor said. "This sends the message that we are serious about tolerance."

As the meeting began, Councilmember at Large Brian Jeffries introduced two large stacks of letters into the record. City Clerk Chris Swope said there were 95 letters in favor of the ordinance, 67 in opposition.

Sexual orientation and gender identity were not the only category those who testified against the ordinance worried about.

Bob Grey a Lansing resident told the council he did not want to be around anyone who had been dishonorably discharged from the military. "That's like treason!" he exclaimed.

Darnell Oldham Sr., a regular fixture at Lansing City Council meetings, also opposed the inclusion of military discharge status. "Here we are supporting people who did not honorably serve our country. I am offended by that." Oldham told the Council he was a Vietnam veteran.

Todd A. Heywood is an activist and former elected official in Lansing. He has advised Kathie Dunbar on the ordinance in the early days of the process, and has written a letter supporting the ordinance to the council members.

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