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Charles Town Council sends anti-discrimination ordinance back to committee

By Staff | Feb 5, 2016

Members of the Charles Town City Council spent nearly an hour discussing a proposed adoption of an anti-discrimination ordinance that was brought to them by local attorneys Andrew and Stephen Skinner. During their workshop, which was open to the public but did not allow public input, council members debated the contents of the ordinance, its necessity and possible repercussions of adoption or non-adoption.

Councilman Bob Trainor expressed that he believed the current state Human Rights Act, along with federal non-discrimination laws have already covered the issue as needed and an ordinance at the local level is unnecessary.

“Where is the problem?” Trainor asked his fellow council members. “What cases do we have in West Virginia that someone has filed? Trainor questioned.

Ann Paonessa responded with the idea that the council needs to be proactive in case there are future cases.

The council could not agree with the current language of the ordinance and reached agreement to send it back to their ordinance committee to look at definitions of terms including sexual orientation and gender identity which are defined in the draft as follows:

“Sexual Orientation means actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality. Gender Identity means actual or perceived appearance, or behavior of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s assigned sex at birth.”

The council touched on several issues that were questionable either on the pro or con side of the ordinance including safety for women and children with regard to bathrooms, locker rooms, etc. and the access that will be afforded to those places to men by the adoption of the ordinance.

“The question is not about a transgender person,” Trainor said. “But about those will use this ordinance to their advantage.”

In addition, the council touched on the how the ordinance could affect the economic climate in the town. Some spoke saying the inclusive nature of the ordinance will encourage businesses to locate in the city while some felt that the ordinance could very well destroy small businesses who face allegations of wrong-doing by disgruntled employees.

Following the work session, the council held their regular meeting which opened with public comment from many in the room on both sides of the ordinance issue.

Samantha Brown, a member of Fairness West Virginia and the NAACP was the first to speak saying that by passing the ordinance, Charles Town would be on the right side of progress.

“The ordinance doesn’t impact the budget; the ordinance doesn’t force pastors to marry people; it doesn’t allow predators in bathrooms,” Brown said. “It signals that everyone is welcome.”

She went on to implore the council to “be a beacon of civil and human rights.”

Joining Brown in complete support of the passage was John Mason with the Church Without Walls. He explained to the council that he is a “gay man who tried to be straight.”

“We need to say we stand for civil rights,” he said. He said that he believes that federal laws do not apply in the case of sexual orientation and gender identity. He also indicated that those federal laws regarding nondiscrimination are for federal employees.

He refuted the belief that there is any infringement upon any religious entity saying that “Pastors have choices. A pastor doesn’t have to marry who they don’t want to.”

There is a specific clause in the ordinance that applies to pastors not being required to violate their beliefs and marry a gay couple.

Many spoke against the ordinance citing safety as an issue with regard to access being given to women and children in restrooms, locker rooms both in businesses and in schools, and potentially in places such as women’s shelters.

While advocates of the oridnance claimed continuously that there were no cases of abuse due to similar ordinances passed around the country, those who spoke against it shared several such cases where individuals lost their businesses due to unprovable claims of discrimination; men who exposed themselves to children in public bathrooms and cases of simple fright and lack of privacy guaranteed to women and children.

Matt Ward, former Charles Town council member, spoke to the matters saying, “The ordinance has no standards for enforcement, penalties and the like. Nothing provides any form for conciliation, only litigation,” he said.

He suggested the council drop the legalistic approach to the potential nondiscrimination issue and have the city manager draft a policy instead.

Michael Donnelly, huamn rights and constitutional law attorney, told council members, “There are serious issues that have been considered at the state and federal levels that have caused them not to pass these types of laws.” He questioned whether the town was the right place for the ordinance.

John Skinner, Charles Town attorney, responded that the ordinance promotes family and protects places to live as well as those who plan to work here.

“Concerns over language is a smokescreen from those who oppose the ordinance,” Skinner claimed.

The ordinance committee has now been given the ordinance to discuss and potentially modify before it comes back to the full council again.

In the meantime, Martinsburg passed a second reading of the same ordinance despite concern from citizens in that community. The same ordinance is scheduled for a first reading at Shepherdstown’s council meeting this Tuesday.