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To be fair or not: Focus was on five Kentucky towns’ experiences with fairness legislation

By Michael Monks
Five Kentucky cities now have laws on the books protecting its gay and lesbian citizens from discrimination and the mayors or other officials from those places shared a stage Thursday night, Oct. 3.
Just Fund Kentucky and the Statewide Fairness Coalition presented the Justice League of Kentucky Superheroes, a panel discussion of fairness ordinances across the Commonwealth at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington.
Covington Mayor Sherry Carran joined mayors from Berea (which is still weighing a fairness ordinance but adopted domestic partner benefits for city workers), Frankfort, and tiny Vicco, as well as city councilmembers from Lexington, a City Hall official from Louisville, and a law professor from the University of Louisville.
“We have a large gay community and a diverse community,” Carran told the audience and moderator Renee Shaw of KET. “We are known for being very welcoming. Visitors always comment that they feel very welcome.”
Covington was the third Kentucky city to pass a fairness or human rights ordinance that extended anti-discrimination protections to members of the gay and lesbian community in 2003. In 2012, the city adopted domestic partner benefits for employees in same-sex relationships.

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran (left) sits next to Vicco Mayor Johnny Cummins on the stage at Kentucky Theatre. (Photo by Michael Monks)

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran (left) sits next to Vicco Mayor Johnny Cummins on the stage at Kentucky Theatre. (Photo by Michael Monks)

“(Domestic partner benefits) wasn’t anything I ever thought about but when it was mentioned (by former City Commissioner Shawn Masters) it seemed like the right thing to do,” Carran said.
The passage of domestic partner benefits in Covington was also an issue of bragging rights as the city of Cincinnati across the river was nearing the adoption of the policy at the same time. Leaders in Covington, particularly Masters, thought it important to be first in the region.
“We just voted for it and worked out the details later,” Carran said to thunderous applause from the audience.
Carran also had a prime seat next to Kentucky’s newest celebrity in the cause of gay rights. Mayor Johnny Cummins pushed for and scored a fairness ordinance in the tiny Eastern Kentucky town of Vicco, population 344. The openly gay town hair dresser became a nationally known personality after the legislation passed, particularly following a charming, moving appearance in a segment on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
The segment was played on a large screen during Thursday night’s event.

“I inherited a real bad situation and we had to revise everything,” Cummins said. “In a little community when you see everyone every day and when you have to look at them, you learn to love them in spite of whatever differences and that’s all that matters.”
“There’s always going to be a couple haters no matter what you do but you just got to learn to love those haters and go on,” he said.
Covington and Vicco share the distinction of having fairness ordinances with the Kentucky cities of Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort. Henderson once had such an ordinance, but it was later repealed.
Lexington is currently mulling the addition of domestic partner benefits for city employees.
“We are very intent on bringing an ordinance that has been fully vetted with as much fact and good information to it so that there is very little way a councilmember can vote against it,” said Lexington Vice Mayor Linda Gordon. “That’s what we’re hoping.”
“The vice mayor and I were the only ones interested in this issue,” said Lexington Councilman Steve Kay. “At some level you make a calculation if you’re an elected official about what the mood and the climate are. It’s inappropriate to call us heroes. You’re the heroes, you are the people who created the climate to make us able to do this.”
The climate is not as certain in Berea where a fairness ordinance has been considered but not adopted.
“We are empowering a human rights commission to deal with all the issues, not singling out fairness but also race and I think that we’re trying to look at civil rights and entrepreneurship as two broad themes that are good for small town rural Kentucky,” said Berea Mayor Steve Connelly. “That’s what we’re trying to support and work toward.”
“I’m a mayor and I don’t have a vote but I would say we’re going to watch Frankfort and learn from that experience,” Connelly said.
Frankfort, after several delays and multiple public forums, became the most recent Kentucky city to adopt a fairness ordinance.
“In order to make sure the public didn’t feel we were running something through in a hurry, we just took our time and let the public have input and ask questions,” said Frankfort Mayor Bill May.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who presides over the government of the first Kentucky city to pass a fairness ordinance in 1999, was unable to attend but was represented by the city’s Chief Community Builder Saqida Reynolds.
“I think we can’t afford in our communities to leave anyone out,” Reynolds said. “You are competing against the country, against the world, so you have to think about what fairness looks like in your city. Why would someone come here if they are not able to be treated fairly? You have to make people feel like they ought to want to come to your city, they ought to want to do business in your city.”
“We want to be the best, we don’t want people to think we’re a second-tier city,” said Reynolds.
University of Louisville law professor Sam Marcosson said a new law adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly could be a threat to fairness ordinances in all these cities.
House Bill 279, the Religious Freedom Act, was passed in both houses of the Legislature but later vetoed by Gov. Steve Beshear after outcry from communities that believed it would have far-reaching effects detrimental to civil rights. The legislature then overrode Beshear’s veto.
“Victims of discrimination, the ability of any of those folks to use these ordinances effectively will be significantly threatened by the existence of that law,” Marcosson said. “What it does is, it says anyone who is charged under such laws can assert as a defense that it substantially burdens their religious beliefs or practice.”
“Everyone knew it was bad. Well, it’s bad. It’s a real challenge if it does get used and I think we will have to work hard in court to show that these laws serve a great interest in Kentucky,” said Marcosson.
The City of Covington unanimously passed a resolution opposing the adoption of HB 279.
Carran said that when it comes to issues like fairness under the law, city leaders must take only facts into account.
“At some point, it’s up to the elected officials to follow the facts,” Carran said. “I think you have to follow the facts, I think that’s our responsibility.”
Michael Monks is the editor and publisher of The River City News.

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