The nation has begun commemorating a series of 50th anniversary milestones from the civil rights movement.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine an America where citizens could be denied a job, a home or service in a restaurant or hotel because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or disability. But that was acceptable until anti-discrimination laws were passed in the mid-1960s.
Those laws didn’t just happen. People were beaten, jailed and even killed while fighting for them — and it wasn’t just the people who suffered discrimination. Things didn’t change until enough other people found the courage to speak out.
I offer this history lesson because Kentucky’s civil rights law remains incomplete. In most of this state, citizens can still be denied a job, a rental home or service in public accommodations based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Berea is now debating whether to join Louisville, Lexington and Covington as the only places in Kentucky that prohibit such discrimination through so-called fairness ordinances.
Berea’s suggested ordinance would protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Still, there might be exceptions for employment at small, private businesses and faith-based organizations. The ordinance also might create a local human rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination.
At a crowded public meeting in May, called by a three-member city council committee studying the issue, many citizens, including some Christian pastors, spoke against a fairness ordinance. “That was sufficient evidence to me that the possibility of discrimination exists,” said Jason Howard, an ordinance advocate.
But at a second public meeting last Thursday, speakers for an ordinance outnumbered opponents by three-to-one. The committee must eventually recommend that the council draft and vote on an ordinance, or not, or put the issue up for a public referendum.
Fairness laws have faced significant opposition across Kentucky. Henderson city commissioners adopted one in 1999, only to repeal it two years later amid voter backlash. Louisville’s ordinance failed several times before it passed in 1999.
Most opposition to fairness laws comes from Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. Other Christians disagree, or they believe laws shouldn’t be based on religious views.
Berea’s debate over a fairness ordinance has gained special attention because of the town’s progressive history. Berea College was founded in 1855 by the Rev. John G. Fee based on what he considered the Christian principles of fairness and equality. At the time, many other Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery. The college was the first in the South to admit African-Americans and women. It is best known now for educating students of modest means who work in return for full scholarships.
A fairness ordinance is supported by two Berea churches Fee founded: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, Union. Berea College hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, although it prohibits such discrimination on its campus and offers same-sex partner benefits to employees.
Christians have differing views on homosexuality. Many point to a few Bible verses that condemn it. But the Bible also prohibits divorce and says adulterers and non-virgin brides should be stoned to death.
Other Christians note that Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality in the Bible, but he did talk about loving your neighbor, treating people as you would want to be treated and being careful about judging others.
Homosexuality will always be subject to religious debate, because each Christian interprets the Bible to fit his or her own conscience and understanding. But that’s not really the point.
Freedom of religion — even freedom from religion — is a core American value. The same goes for equal protection under the law. Gay, lesbian and transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as everyone else. It won’t happen easily, though, so long as elected officials can get more votes by pandering to some people’s fears and prejudices.
The people of Berea have long set an example for the rest of Kentucky by treating society’s marginalized people with fairness and justice. The right thing to do in this case should be obvious. And it might even help other Kentuckians find the courage to speak out.