“We are in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and you will be cursed by God if you pass this ordinance.”
Bishop Ricky D. Hogan – Rock of Salvation Apostolic Church
By Brad Flory – Exponent special writer
Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will be outlawed in Jackson under one of the most extensively and passionately debated ordinances in city history.
The nondiscrimination ordinance, or NDO, was approved by a 5-2 vote of the City Council on Feb. 7. It takes effect 30 days from passage.
An audience of about 700 gathered at the Michigan Theatre for the City Council vote, an unprecedented crowd far too big for the meeting chambers at City Hall. As precautions, a large police presence assembled inside the theater and everyone who entered was checked at the door for weapons.
Residents from Jackson and outlying townships spoke for more than five hours, at two minutes each, to voice their opinions before the City Council vote.
Depending on one’s point of view, the final decision was either a long-overdue triumph for equality and justice, or an alarming governmental assault on Christian values and religious freedom.
Religious leaders themselves were widely divided on where the civil rights ordinance for lesbians, bisexuals, gays, and transgendered people fits into Christian beliefs.
“I think it’s important that we send a message, loud and clear, that this is a welcoming city,” said the Rev. James Hegedus, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, who supported the NDO.
The Rev. Timothy Nelson of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church spoke in opposition, saying, “We believe this ordinance needs far greater protection for the religious freedom we all enjoy.”
Bishop Ricky D. Hogan of the Rock of Salvation Apostolic Church said, “We are in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and you will be cursed by God if you pass this ordinance.”
The NDO traces back nearly 20 years, when it was developed by Jackson’s Human Relations Commission. It was proposed but not passed at least three times since the 1990s.
“It’s been too long, and I’m tired,” said Alice Lewis, chairwoman of the HRC.
As passed by City Council, Jackson’s new ordinance outlaws discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation, with exceptions for religious organizations and private clubs not open to the public.
Complaints must be filed to the Human Relations Commission within 30 days of alleged discrimination. The complaints will be investigated by the city attorney office and can advance to a conciliation process. Violations are punishable as a civil infraction and a fine of up to $500 per day.
Supporters of the NDO repeatedly argued that religious beliefs are not violated if gay and transgendered people are protected from discrimination.
“I don’t believe it is a Christian value to discriminate. I don’t believe it’s an American value to discriminate,” said Carl Struble, president of Jackson Gay Pride.
Opponents argued that the ordinance will restrict first-amendment freedom by prohibiting people from acting on religious convictions about LBGT lifestyles when making business decisions.
Religious objections aside, some opponents also said the ordinance is poorly written and can cause financial and reputational damage if landlords or business owners are falsely accused.
City leaders have concluded that experience in more than 40 other Michigan municipalities with similar ordinances shows few complaints are actually filed. That fact led supporters of the NDO to say fears of false accusations – or many accusations at all – are unfounded.
“It deters discrimination from happening in the first place,” said Catherine Villanueva, an attorney and Summit Township resident.
The NDO was also criticized as basic governmental overreach, because it is a law that injects City Hall into private business decisions.
Councilman Derek Dobies, who championed the NDO, refuted the overreach argument by saying government has a legitimate role to protect people from discrimination in the private marketplace.
“As a country and a community, we’ve decided long ago that businesses that are open to the public should be open to everyone equally,” Dobies said.
Two of the community’s biggest businesses, Consumers Energy and Henry Ford Allegiance Health, both publicly supported the NDO.
Consumers Energy’s advocacy caused some opponents of the NDO to urge Councilman Andrew Frounfelker, a Consumers employee, to abstain from voting. Frounfelker did not abstain, but the ordinance would have passed 4-2 even if he did.
Dobies, Frounfelker, and council members Freddie Dancy, Daniel Greer, and Arlene Robinson voted for the NDO. Councilman Craig Pappin and Mayor Bill Jors were opposed.
Greer reversed previous opposition to the NDO after what he described considerable reflection and study.
“What I had to do was drill down deep into my own soul to come up with what I thought was the best solution in the best interests of the community,” Greer said.