Royal Oak Ordinance Thwarted For Now

Enough Signatures Submitted To Force A Ballot Fight

By Jan Stevenson

ROYAL OAK - It appears that enough petition signatures were turned in at Royal Oak City Hall April 2 to thwart a human rights ordinance - at least for now. The ordinance was set to go into effect last month but now may end up being decided by the voters in November. The new ordinance, passed by the city commission 6-1 on March 4, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV and other characteristics.

Royal Oak resident Fred Birchard, 75, who campaigned to block a similar ordinance in 2001, told the Detroit Free Press that he turned in about 1,200 signatures, almost twice the minimum 746 signatures needed to block enactment of the ordinance.

If enough signatures are validated by the city clerk, then the city commissioners will take up the ordinance at their April 15 meeting. They can decide to either drop the ordinance altogether, or vote to place it on the November ballot.

Local residents, elected officials and business owners were not happy that the ordinance is now stopped.

Openly gay city commissioner Jim Rasor said that if the signatures are validated, he has a high level of confidence that the commission will vote to put the ordinance on the ballot in November.

"We have a democratic process and if that number of voters thinks it should be put to a vote in November, then so be it," said Rasor. "In listening to Mr. Birchard, he thinks that God talks to him directly and that what he thinks God says to him trumps civil law."

Rasor is also a well know attorney in Royal Oak who specializes in civil rights law. He said he is often hobbled in discrimination cases against LGBT clients because federal, state and local laws do not recognize basic rights of LGBT people. "If someone's boss walks into their office and fires them because the boss just found out they are gay, then I have no recourse under current federal and state law," said Rasor. "That just feels un-American to me."

"I'm not pleased it was thwarted," said Keith Howarth, owner of Noir Leather in Royal Oak. "I feel it's a small minority of the older Royal Oak population and not representative at all of the new Royal Oak population. I think it is ignorant of the people who are thwarting it. It's 2013 and we need to understand that there is diversity among us and everyone is welcome in Royal Oak."

"My partner and I were proud as citizens of Royal Oak that the city commissioners had made a wise and just decision," said Kate Wade who has lived in Royal Oak with her partner, Eileen Brandeis, for over 25 years. "We question why when a governing body has made a decision in favor of equality for a minority group it can be challenged by an individual and put to a majority vote."

Royal Oak would have been the 22nd city in Michigan to enact a non-discrimination ordinance. Neighboring city Ferndale passed an ordinance several years ago, and Pleasant Ridge is set to move on a similar ordinance at their city council meeting April 9.

"I'm disappointed that residents went the petition route," said Dave Coulter, mayor of Ferndale who specifically addressed a frequent objection to non-discrimination ordinances that enactment uses valuable policing resources. "I spoke before the Royal Oak Commission (when they were considering the ordinance) and shared our experience in Ferndale. There have been very few incidents that involved the police. In fact quite the opposite. Passing the ordinance is one of the reasons that Ferndale has been as successful as we have been because it says to everyone that we are diverse and welcome everyone."

If the ordinance goes to a popular vote in Royal Oak next fall, the campaign to educate voters on the importance of the ordinance will fall to residents, business owners and activists.

"The challenge to the ordinance represents a small number of voters in Royal Oak. Royal Oak overwhelmingly supports fairness and equality, as the commission did and voters will in November," said Jon Hoadley, director of Unity Michigan Coalition, a group that represents six of the largest LGBT organizations in Michigan.

"I can't speak too much (about anti-LGBT sentiments) because Five 15 does so well with our alternative show," said Gary Baglio, owner of Five 15 Store in downtown Royal Oak. "Our Drag Queen Bingo is so wildly popular that I hope it will help educate people as to why it's so important to support this ordinance."

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