Fairness Parkersburg gives presentation on non-discrimination ordinance to council

Opposition group granted time on July 25

Jeanne Peters, left, and Susan Sharp make a presentation in favor of a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance on behalf of Fairness Parkersburg during a meeting Tuesday of Parkersburg City Council’s Committee of the Whole. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

PARKERSBURG — More than 200 people gathered in Parkersburg City Council chambers Tuesday and 100 or so more listened in a nearby conference room as the much-debated nondiscrimination ordinance was back on a municipal agenda for the first time in four months.

Members of Fairness Parkersburg made a presentation on the proposed law to Parkersburg City Council sitting as the Committee of the Whole, while a group called Liberty PKB presented council with nearly 5,000 signatures opposed to it.

The ordinance was sent to the committee after its first reading in March and has dominated council public forums since.

No action was taken on the ordinance Tuesday, but during the regular council meeting, members voted 8-0, with Councilman Dave McCrady absent, to meet again as the Committee of the Whole before the July 25 meeting to hear a presentation in opposition to the ordinance from Liberty PKB.

During Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Fairness Parkersburg members Susan Sharp, a Parkersburg resident and retired attorney, and Jeanne Peters, a Vienna resident and business owner, outlined the provisions of the ordinance and addressed arguments against it.

Parkersburg resident Jennifer Bryant, right, speaks in favor of a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

“The goal is to make certain that no one has housing, jobs or basic goods and services denied to them based on certain innate characteristics,” Peters said.

Much of the language is taken from the West Virginia Human Rights Act, but the categories of sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status and genetic information are added, Sharp said.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations based on these and other characteristics. It does not establish a penalty, but City Attorney Joe Santer has said it could make it easier for someone to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination.

Sharp and Peters said enabling lawsuits is not the motivation of the ordinance but rather to extend protections to all and make the community a welcoming place. That can have an important impact on LGBTQ youth, Peters said, citing federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that show they are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

“Charleston passed its NDO 10 years ago, and there have been no untoward events,” Peters said. “We cannot find a single case in West Virginia based on public accommodations.”

Parkersburg resident Sara McQuain, right, speaks in favor of a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, with her daughter Dahlia beside her, during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Sharp said the term “public accommodations” has been defined by courts as establishments open to the public, such as hotels, movie theaters, restaurants and retail stores. It does not refer to restrooms, for which there is no federal or state law regulating who can use which facilities, Peters said.

“The NDO simply requires that if a business is open to the public, it must be open to all of the public,” Sharp said.

They took issue with the petition presented by members of Liberty PKB, saying it contained many falsehoods, among them that existing state and federal laws offer appropriate protections, that the NDO discriminates against businesses and organizations with moral, religious or conscientious objections and unfairly protects those who choose the LGBT lifestyle.

“This is not a lifestyle choice. It is an innate characteristic,” Sharp said.

During the council meeting, Liberty PKB members Dan Stevens and Mike Lamb presented 4,321 petitions signed by people who live, work and shop in Parkersburg to city officials, along with an additional 538 from council District 3, represented by Bob Mercer.

An estimated 220 people were in Parkersburg City Council chambers Tuesday night as Fairness Parkersburg made a presentation on a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance to council’s Committee of the Whole. During the regular council meeting, multiple people spoke for and against the measure. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

“Just because you say that, doesn’t mean it’s so,” Stevens said in reference to the accusations of falsehoods in the petition.

“They try to pass on a lie that they have no choice,” Lamb said. “They’re asking for special protections because of a choice they made.”

Lubeck resident Joe Ward, who works in Parkersburg, said he believes in protecting and respecting the rights of all Americans but asked council to reject the ordinance, saying it seems “to jeopardize the rights” of a large portion of the population.

“We won’t know until it happens, and by then it’s too late,” he said.

Parkersburg resident Jennifer Bryant said she is concerned about the attitudes displayed by people opposed to the ordinance.

Chalk drawings, statistics and slogans supporting the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance were placed on the sidewalk in front of Parkersburg’s Municipal Building prior to Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole and City Council. A presentation on the ordinance was made by Fairness Parkersburg during the committee meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

“The people caught in this maelstrom that has been swirling in the past few months are humans,” she said. “It (the ordinance) is not going to harm our children. But the way they see trusted adults behaving will.

“Requiring the government to follow the edicts of a particular religion would result in a theocracy as we find in the Middle East,” Bryant said. “And I don’t think that’s what any of us wants.”

Parkersburg resident Dan Stevens, left, places a stack of petitions in opposition to the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance on the desk of City Clerk Connie Shaffer, right, during Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. (Photo by Evan Bevins)