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After contentious public comment, council tables non-discrimination ordinance

Family Policy Council of West Virginia President Allen Whitt, right, discusses the format of the public forum during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting as Fairness West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider listens. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

PARKERSBURG — More than 300 people sat in seats and on the floor and stood along the wall in City Council chambers Tuesday — with more waiting in the lobby — as Parkersburg’s lawmakers considered an ordinance barring discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

A decision was ultimately delayed with the ordinance tabled in a 7-2 vote.

Parkersburg City Clerk Connie Shaffer said it was the biggest crowd she’s seen in more than four decades working for the city.

“It’s been full before, but it’s never been like this,” she said. “We’ve never had a topic like this.”

The ordinance on first reading would have made it “an unlawful discriminatory practice” to limit or deny employment opportunities, public services or housing to someone on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness, disability, genetic information, familial status, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

More than 300 people sat in chairs and on the floor or stood in Parkersburg City Council chambers as the members considered a non-discrimination ordinance Tuesday. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

The latter two classifications were the primary topics of discussion, as Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said they are not protected under state and federal human and civil rights laws. The ordinance is necessary, he said, “so none of us have to fear being fired (from) our job because of who we love; no one has to fear being turned away from housing or rental properties because of our sexual orientation; and no one has to fear about being turned away from a restaurant, a hotel or any public accommodation because of our sexual orientation.”

Fairness West Virginia is a civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The group has been working with local supporters to pass the ordinance.

Schneider said the ordinance would fulfill the Biblical charge to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as well as make good business sense, as most Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies.

Allen Whitt, a Jackson County resident and president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, spoke after Schneider, saying people with differing opinions should find ways to get along without government direction.

“If you adopt this ordinance, you give one side of the argument a legal hammer to use against the other,” he said.

Liberty Street Church of God Pastor Brian Harrell speaks against the proposed non-discrimination ordinance, which he said could lead to businesses and perhaps other entities being sued, during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Whitt argued an attorney should be able to decide what kinds of cases he or she takes and other professionals should be able to decide based on their beliefs how to do business. He recommended council table the ordinance.

In his executive message, Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce asked council to strongly consider the definition of the term “public accommodations.” In the ordinance, it says those are “any establishment or person … which offers its services, goods, facilities or accommodations to the general public, but does not include any accommodations which are in their nature private.”

“I think that is less than perfectly clear,” he said. “I think there is potential there for some unintended consequences.”

Joyce did not elaborate, but people speaking during the public forum suggested those consequences could include allowing transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify or make businesses face legal penalties if they decline to provide services to people based on their sexual orientation.

A Mineral Wells resident said he would not take his family to restaurants where they might share a restroom with someone of the opposite sex. Schneider said current law does not dictate who can use what restroom and fears that passing the ordinance would increase the risk of assaults are unfounded.

Vienna resident Jeanne Peters, left, speaks in favor of the proposed non-discrimination ordinance, which she said would extend basic civil rights to people regardless of sexual orientation, during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Pastor Brian Harrell, with the Liberty Street Church of God, said if the ordinance passed, someone would eventually be sued or threatened with legal action over it as multiple businesses in the country have been.

“They have a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist in Parkersburg,” he said. “I believe if you pass that ordinance there will be a problem found somewhere.”

Parkersburg attorney Walt Auvil said six cities in West Virginia have adopted similar legislation and such complaints have not surfaced, something at least one other speaker challenged.

“It’s a fictitious argument — a parade of horribles — that isn’t really a concern,” Auvil said.

Parkersburg resident Dan Stephens said he loves the community’s diversity but believes the ordinance could threaten some individuals’ freedoms and churches could be challenged despite the inclusion of religious exemptions.

Parkersburg City Councilman Dave McCrady speaks during Tuesday’s council meeting at the Municipal Building. McCrady was a sponsor of the non-discrimination ordinance, but made the motion to table it, saying later that it needed fine-tuning. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Vienna resident Jeanne Peters said she moved to the area because of the welcoming atmosphere of Parkersburg.

“I don’t have an agenda; I have a life,” she said. “We’re not asking for special rights or privileges. We’re asking for basic human rights.”

Don Wehr, a retired pastor living outside city limits, said he believes in treating others fairly but feels that prohibiting people from making business decisions based on personal values is unfair.

“You’re elevating them above me,” he said.

A local high school student disputed some speakers’ contention that discrimination isn’t an issue in Parkersburg.

Parkersburg City Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl, standing, third from right, speaks to citizens seated in front of the council table prior to the start of Tuesday’s council meeting, which drew hundreds of people. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

“If discrimination here is not a problem, then why have I been bullied for several weeks?” she said, adding she has had to start taking a different route home from school. “You can’t just pretend it’s not happening.”

The public forum, usually limited to 30 minutes, continued for more than an hour, with council voting twice to grant additional time. Speakers from both sides were met with applause when they concluded their remarks.

Councilman Dave McCrady, a sponsor of the ordinance who has spoken in favor of it, made the motion to table. It passed 7-2, with Councilman Jeff Fox and Council President J.R. Carpenter opposed.

McCrady moved to refer it to the Committee of the Whole, all nine council members, for further discussion. After the meeting, he said after further reading and discussion, he felt the ordinance was too broad and the section about public accommodations too vague.

“We definitely want to be fair,” he said after the meeting. “All we want to do is fine tune it and bring it back where everybody understands what it is.”

Fox said he hopes the ordinance will come back to council.

“I thought it was great tonight to see all the interaction, from both sides,” he said. “I’m willing to work on anything that helps move this city to a better place for everyone.”

* * *

Parkersburg City Council in Brief

* Council voted 7-2 to table an ordinance establishing a non-discrimination policy related to race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and more for employment, public accommodations and housing accommodations.

* Council voted 9-0 to approve the abandonment of two alleys and part of a third between Seventh, East and Mary streets and Stephenson Avenue, where a Sheetz convenience store and gas station is planned.

* Council unanimously approved an amended ordinance updating charges for copies of city records and documents.

* Council unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance allowing no more than one non-city resident who is a customer to sit on the Parkersburg Utility Board.

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