Martinsville Mayor Phil Deckard signed an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, setting in motion a drafting of an expansive human rights ordinance for the Southern Indiana city.
Martinsville Mayor Phil Deckard signed an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, setting in motion a drafting of an expansive human rights ordinance for the Southern Indiana city.
By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI State Reporter


INDIANAPOLIS – As legislators scrambled to respond to fallout from a divisive religious freedom law that critics said sanctioned discrimination, Republican activist Brent Kent went online to do some damage control of his own. Kent launched a petition asking residents of his small hometown of Martinsville to push their elected leaders to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect gays and lesbians.

Within days, Martinsville Mayor Phil Deckard signed an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as a City Council proclamation declaring the community open to all. That set into motion the work of drafting an expansive human rights ordinance. The local Chamber of Commerce quickly posted the proclamation on its website.

If Martinsville adopts a human rights ordinance, as expected, it will join a growing number of communities that are moving to create or expand similar laws in the aftermath of the state's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. On Tuesday night, the Whitestown Council pass anti-discrimination language to its ordinance based on sexual orientation. "Whitestown is open to all and discriminates against no one," said Whitestown Council President Eric Miller, a Republican not to be confused with Advance America’s lobbyist of the same name.

Opponents of the law, including Freedom Indiana and the American Civil Liberties Union, are vowing to push for an expansion of the state’s civil rights law to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But that effort will take months. Republicans who control the General Assembly have said they won't take up the issue until next year's legislative session, at the earliest.

So, the focus instead has turned to communities, including Martinsville. For decades, the southern Indiana city of 10,000 people was plagued with what Kent calls an unfair reputation as a closed, racist community. That stemmed from a 1960s murder of a young black woman and a complicated history with the Ku Klux Klan.

Kent was pleased by his city's reaction to the state's religious freedom law. “It was an opportunity for the people of Martinsville to state and really re-state what’s important to them,” he said. “And it’s something the state of Indiana should have already done.”

The ACLU and Freedom Indiana are offering a legal framework for other cities, towns and counties to follow. Legal scholars say those efforts may be accelerated by the "fix" passed by lawmakers to quell controversy over the religious freedom act.

The legislature's amendment said the new law cannot be used as protection against discrimination claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In essence, that carves out room for local ordinances that protect gay and transgender people from discrimination, said Indiana University law professor Robert Katz.

“But, at the state level, it’s still perfectly legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in any context,” he said.

Before the religious freedom law was signed, about a dozen Indiana communities had human rights ordinances, Katz said. Nine included language covering sexual orientation and/or gender identity, though local rules vary significantly in their enforcement provisions.

After the religious freedom law passed, local officials across the state, Republican and Democrat, began re-examining what’s on their books.

Muncie was among the first to act. On April 6, its city council revised a non-discrimination ordinance to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Existing rules cover race, religion and ethnicity. The updated ordinance took effect the next day.

Terre Haute officials are looking at their 16-year-old human rights ordinance, which covers sexual orientation but lacks much enforcement power. Jeff Lorick, executive director of the Terre Haute Human Relations Commission, would like to see that changed. An expanded ordinance could save the city money on potential lawsuits and make its citizens feel more valued, he said.

In conservative Martinsville, the mayor’s order not only bars the city from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it extends the same prohibition to vendors doing business with city.

Katz said a wave of cities and towns expanding their civil rights reveals "a new moral consensus emerging that it’s unacceptable to have laws that allow discrimination." Katz isn’t surprised that communities are moving more quickly than state policy makers. He noted that organized opposition to gay rights is more focused on legislators in the General Assembly, who wrestled with a controversial same-sex marriage amendment last year before taking on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this year.

“It’s easier on the local level to enact human rights ordinances than to muster the political will needed to get it passed on the state level,” he said.

Maureen Hayden is the CNHI state reporter in Indiana. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden