By Peggy Mackenzie
In a unanimous decision, the Lewisburg City Council voted to pass the non-discrimination Ordinance 254 on the second reading early Tuesday morning after five hours of hearing comments both for and against.
About 500 people showed up for the hearing, drawing 89 impassioned speakers to the microphone, about evenly split between supporters and opponents alternately presenting their comments throughout the long evening. Many speakers were convinced, through the efforts of the conservative Family Policy Council, that the ordinance will allow men to put on dresses, sneak into women’s restrooms, and assault women and children. The ordinance permits no such action.
Fear was an oft used word thrown about by both sides, as were quotes from scripture and remarks like “what would Jesus do?” and “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“This is a civil rights issue” was also heard over and over.
The crowd continued a steady thrum of cheers and applause for each speaker. Many descriptions of personal experiences were shared, giving the entire audience an unparalleled opportunity to bear witness to the reality on the ground for trans people or for the safety of young children in public restrooms.
The ordinance, amending Article 137, Human Right Commission of Part I, Administrative Code of the codified ordinances of Lewisburg, declares public policy for non-discrimination in employment and public accommodations for all persons without regard to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness, and disability, and now includes non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The city council added a provision to the ordinance clarifying that the ordinance does not seek to abridge the freedom of speech or freedom of religion of faith-based organizations, based on concerns from some that church leaders would be forced to perform same-sex marriages and similar fears.
Everyone has the same view of child predators, Mayor John Manchester said. “They are the lowest of the low. No one wants pedophiles or predators in bathrooms.” With or without the passage of this ordinance, people at most risk need protection. The intent of this ordinance, he said, “is to protect unprotected people.”
Security measures for the event, held at the Roland P. Sharp Alumni Building on the campus of the West Virginia Osteopathic School, required an hour and a half to process the capacity crowd of nearly 400, including screenings with metal detectors that required the task force efforts of the WVSOM fire marshals, Lewisburg Police Department, the West Virginia State Police, the Greenbrier County Sheriffs Office, and Lewisburg Fire Department. Reportedly, 100 more were unable to enter the building or participate due to school fire code limits.
On the dais, city attorney Jesse Guills joined council members Joseph Lutz, Beverly White, Heather Blake, Josh Baldwin and Mark Etten, together with Mayor John Manchester and recorder Shannon Beatty.
Guills read from a prepared statement stating that as a result of extensive research and advisement and education, the city council was prepared to vote on the ordinance, having processed 700 emails, text messages and phone calls from the public and met with church leaders and others for a full understanding of the issues facing the community.
Guills said there are no challenges under litigation to any similar ordinances in the other West Virginia cities that have successfully passed the non-discrimination ordinance.
At just before 12:30 a.m., the motion was made to pass the amended ordinance, which passed 5-0. Lewisburg is the seventh city or town in West Virginia to pass a similar ordinance.
In a closely related statewide issue, on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 16 to 9. It now moves to the House floor for its consideration. If approved by the West Virginia Legislature, it could lead to lawsuits for cities that have passed nondiscrimination ordinances that include LGBTQ protections, like Lewisburg did on Tuesday. These bills across the country have historically been used to allow discrimination of LGBTQ people but extend to also affect individuals based on race, religion, color, etc.
If this bill passes, any West Virginia citizen or visitor to our state can be refused service by restaurants, bakeries, movie theaters, hotels, ski resorts, white water rafting companies, but they can also be refused service by doctors, nurses, EMTs, pharmacists, funeral directors, etc. Furthermore, an employee could also sue their employer if the business/business owner forces them to serve these individuals against their will.