South Bend Common Council passes human rights ordinance

After five hours and 42 speakers, the South Bend Common Council passed the controversial human rights ordinance.

Monday marked the third time in six years the council has considered an ordinance that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but it was the first time it had enough support to pass the measure.

“The community became very involved in the last election,” said Clinical Psychologist Catherine Pittman of South Bend Equality.

The proposed ordinance was more likely to pass because all of the four new council members who took office in January signed on as co-sponsors (G. Ferlic, F. Ferlic, Schey, and Scott), meaning just one incumbent was needed to pass it.

After five hours of presentations and public hearing, council members Oliver Davis, who co-sponsored a similar bill in 2010, and Karen White, who previously opposed similar bills, joined the four new members and helped pass the bill 6-3. Derek Dieter, David Varner and Henry Davis, Jr. voted against the bill.

"I think it’s a different game this time because we’ve had a lot of education and discussion in our community about this issue, and the vast majority of people believe that an individual should be judged on the basis of how they perform on the job,” said Pittman.

Despite the support of the council, opponents intend to challenge the legal standing of the bill.

“It is unfair, it is unjust, it is unconstitutional and it is unenforceable,” said Patrick Mangan with Citizens for Community Values. “If it is passed, it’ll be a symbolic vote because it will be challenged and overturned in court.”

The skeptical legal opinions have been coming from several directions. In fact, one came from the council’s own staff attorney. “May not be enforceable, the state doesn’t recognize this, it really is not enforceable,” said 2nd District Councilman Henry Davis, Jr. in summary. “Well, we don’t want another St. Joe High School debacle and so you want to listen to your legal aid.”

“The legislation wasn’t drawn up by the council attorney, it was drawn up by the [Buttigieg] administration’s attorney,” Davis went on to say. “It came from the administration with signatures from four council members, sounds like the administration is working with only certain council members to get things done.”

Catherine Pittman has her own legal opinion. “Well, I think the best evidence it can be done legally is that it has been done in Indianapolis, there haven’t been any lawsuits, it’s been being enforced and there’s not a problem.”

Pittman says she feels the issue has come a long way in terms of community understanding since the measure’s first defeat in 2006.

“What we most found when we began this process is most people thought it was already illegal to fire someone because they were gay, or they thought it was already illegal to deny housing to someone whose transgender. They thought that was already illegal. People don't fight for something to change when they think it already exists.”

While supporters of the measure were more politically active in the last election, that doesn't appear to be what changed the attitude on the council.

In fact, only two of the four newly elected council members were endorsed by the group called South Bend Equality. In the two other races, the group actually endorsed a challenger.

Following the vote, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he plans to sign the bill into law on Tuesday. It is expected to take effect April 6th.

“I know this is an emotional issue, people have strong feelings about this on both sides and we’ve been debating this in the community for the better part of a decade. I don’t think a lot of people are going to change their minds," said Buttigieg.

The sexual orientation addition may not be the only group this council will look to add. Prior to the vote, Councilman Henry Davis, Jr. unsuccessfully tried to add ex-felons as well, but the measure was defeated 7-2 with many saying it was not the right time. The council did pledge to look into the possibility of adding ex-felons at a later time.

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