The Finance, Rules and Administration Committee of the Carmel City Council decided Sept. 17 to table a proposed ordinance that would outlaw discrimination of many groups, including the gay and lesbian community.
Some councilors said they wanted to be prudent and not rush into a decision. Others criticized the delay, saying it’s all because some are reluctant to address the issue at all.
With the ordinance tabled, the issue faces a tougher road in going up for a vote at the City Council meeting Sept. 21.
To bring the issue out of committee, City Council President Rick Sharp – who has voiced support for the ordinance – would have to call a motion to order and be joined by three other councilors in favor.
Sharp has voiced strong support for the ordinance, along with councilors Sue Finkam and Ron Carter. Councilor Carol Schlief expressed support for the idea of the ordinance but followed it up with questions about specific details. She ultimately did not second a motion to bring the ordinance out of committee.
Councilor Eric Seidensticker, who has been staunchly against the proposal, did not speak. Committee Chair Luci Snyder and Councilor Kevin “Woody” Rider both expressed concerns about the necessity and wording of the ordinance.
This was not a usual committee meeting of the Carmel City Council. A crowd of interested citizens nearly filled the city council chambers, while most committee meetings are usually held in smaller conference rooms with councilors speaking casually around a boardroom table instead of speaking from the dais. Public comment is not common at committee meetings and Snyder warned attendees that, “People will not be allowed to speak. We had three-plus hours of opinions at the last council meeting.”
Snyder said members of the public were only invited to speak if they had new information about the proposal that wasn’t previously revealed. In the end, speakers shared their opinions for more than hour, leading to one hostile exchange when a member of the audience loudly interrupted a speaker only to be harshly reprimanded.
The council was dealing with the ordinance in its original form without amendments. All of the city councilors were in attendance except Sharp.
Michael Wallack, a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Rights, said his group met again and reaffirmed its support for the proposal.
“Phrases like, ‘No discrimination,’ were uttered frequently and not just by committee members with minority status,” he said.
He pointed out that the law protects groups beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. He said it means businesses couldn’t decide not to hire someone or rent them a house, for example, if they were married or single, had children or were pregnant.
“Christianity is protected in the same way that Islam or Judaism is protected,” he said.
Wallack said he didn’t want to see a lack of action reflect poorly on Carmel.
“Next time Money Magazine chooses the top places to live, we don’t want to find that Carmel didn’t make the rankings because it tolerates discrimination,” he said.
Next up, The Rev. Richard Doerr of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church told the council about a petition he had circulated that received hundreds of signatures. It asks that instead of passing the ordinance the council pass a resolution that simply states that Carmel doesn’t discriminate. He said that would help with the city’s perception among business leaders but wouldn’t force a business owner to go against his or her faith.
“Please recognize this idea as the historic win-win that it is,” he said.
Eric Miller, founder of Advance America and one of the leading forces behind the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, spoke for an extended period, saying that, “In my opinion, this ordinance raises a number of serious legal issues that need to be addressed.”
He said the law was unconstitutional and “suffers from vagueness.” He asked that definitions be provided for terms such as “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” “religious worship” and so on.
Miller said he disagrees with the penalties described in the ordinance, which says the city has the power to fine a violator up to $500 per day. He said there’s no due process to appeal or recoup legal expenses if someone is unfairly accused of discrimination.
“This ordinance could financially ruin a church, a pastor, a business owner or an individual,” he said.
When the public comment portion ended, Snyder declared that she had a number of problems with the law, mostly with the idea of fines, because, “we’re giving our government the power to crush a company, a person financially.”
Snyder said she feels that Carmel is searching for a problem that doesn’t exist.
“I’m not speaking here from a religious point of view,” she said. “I’m speaking from someone who cares about how we write our laws.”
Rider emphasized that he doesn’t practice discrimination in his own businesses but said he believes in common sense in government. He questioned why a gay person would want to force a homophobic person to provide services for a gay wedding, which to him, doesn’t make sense. He also added that he feels his religious beliefs guide him in many of the decisions he makes in life, which includes legislation.
“I have an issue with protecting one group over another group,” Rider said. “We can protect both.”
Snyder ultimately declared that the issue will be tabled. Carter suggested that a motion be made to bring the proposal out of committee, but he could not make that motion or vote because he is not on the committee. Finkam, who is a committee member, made the motion but failed to get a second. Schleif said she considered seconding the motion but decided not to and instead asked further questions about the ordinance.
Finkam reprimanded the council for not taking action at the meeting because she said there’s been ample time. The previous committee meeting in August was canceled because of City Attorney Doug Haney announcing he would take a leave of absence. No replacement meeting was scheduled. Finkam said all of the materials have been available to make a decision.
“I find this unfathomable that this sat for five weeks and work wasn’t done,” Finkam said.
Snyder shot back that she never received any emails or calls from Finkam.
Carter said he thinks some councilors are just afraid to take a stand on this issue.
“We’ve been working with this for a month,” Carter said. “We are attempting to drag our feet and not pass a non-discrimination ordinance.”
Snyder said she doesn’t want to be rushed into a decision and make a mistake. She said it’s not an urgent matter because discrimination isn’t a problem in Carmel.