It was a packed house Monday night in the council chamber of Carmel City Hall. All 120 audience seats were filled with the maximum allowed number of 30 people standing along the back of the room. More people spilled out into the hallway where a speaker was set up for people to listen to the city council meeting.
City council president Kevin Rider commented on how cool it was to hear the Pledge of Allegiance recited in such a strong unified voice from the large number of people there.
That voice remained unified long enough for Mayor Jim Brainard and fire department officials to present two women with awards for their heroic efforts in saving the life of a man who had a heart attack during a recent charity run on the Monon trail. Everyone in attendance gave the heroines and the survivor a standing ovation for their efforts.
That unified voice was shattered by the next order of business.
The Carmel city council heard public testimony regarding a proposed ordinance designed to make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under civil rights laws for the Hamilton County city. The ordinance had been discussed and unanimously approved previously by the mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations. Mayor Brainard fully supported the ordinance and six of the seven city council members sponsored the proposal.
However, public testimony echoed the debate regarding religious freedom heard in the halls of the Indiana Statehouse six months ago.
Ordinance D-2224-15, prepared by Carmel city attorney Douglas Haney, states no person, corporation, company or other individual conducting business in Carmel shall discriminate against another on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family or marital status, ancestry, age, and/or veteran status in public business, housing, education, employment, contracts and services.
The wording is very similar to ordinances that exist in other cities and towns throughout the state. Sexual orientation and gender identity have been protected in Indianapolis since 2005. Muncie adopted civil rights protections for LGBT persons shortly after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) blew up in the face of state government in the spring. Other communities around the state are also considering similar ordinances including Fishers and Noblesville. Several state legislators have vowed to bring those protections to the General Assembly for consideration in the next legislative session and U.S. Representative Andre Carson has pledged to bring the issue to the national stage.
However, there is one part of Carmel’s proposed ordinance that differs from existing ordinances — the penalties for violation.
In Indianapolis, for example, if a business is accused of violating the civil rights ordinance, the city’s equal opportunity advisory board investigates the complaint. If the complaint is found to be valid, it is handed over to the state civil rights commission for further investigation. If validated again, the complainant is eligible to pursue any losses accrued as a result of the violation in civil court. In other words, the victim can sue for damages.
With the complaint and investigation results made public, the violating business is also put under a spotlight in the “court of public opinion.” The media attention and associated public scrutiny is probably the most damning penalty the offending business could ever sustain.
The tone for the dissent was established when councilwoman Sue Finkham offered a public apology to a constituent who had contacted her about the ordinance. Finkham told the crowd that the person had expressed their disgust with the ordinance proposal, to which Finkham said she replied, “I’ll help you move.” Finkham said her comment was out of line and as a councilwoman and mom she regretted the statement. She publicly apologized for the comment and her unprofessional conduct.
One by one, more Carmel residents expressed their displeasure with the ordinance proposal. Their reasoning for their opposition sounded exactly like the justification some Hoosiers expressed at the statehouse when supporting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Many used the word “freedom” when trying to express their belief in the right to choose whom they would and would not do business with based on their religious convictions. Commenters frequently stated they didn’t believe in discrimination and followed the “love thy neighbor” commandment faithfully, yet in the same breath said they wanted to protect their religious rights faithfully in all aspects of life and business owners should be allowed to do the same. The religious baker refusing to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple was an example of religious freedom used in conversation and testimony multiple times. (I’m not sure when cake outranked bread and wine as sanctified food.)
Mayor Brainard was complimented for his service and dedication to making Carmel a great place to live just as much as he was criticized for supporting the ordinance and bringing it before the council. The mayor was called greedy and caring only about “the money” instead of the moral fiber of the community. Carmel resident Barbara Williams drew groans from the audience — that had been relatively patient with the testimony — when she pointed at the council members and told them that if they passed the ordinance they would “have blood on their hands.”
Mayor Brainard did not shy away from the public criticism that he all he cares about is “the money.” If the money in question is the business dollars he hopes to attract to Carmel through economic development, then the criticism is accurate.
“Carmel and Indianapolis are in competition for good jobs with cities across the globe. Our competition quite honestly isn’t anywhere in Indiana, it’s other places, in many cases other countries,” says Brainard. “We need to have a quality of life in Carmel and in Indianapolis equal to that of the best places to live anywhere in the world if we are to be successful.”
Brainard agrees the state is still under scrutiny by the world following the RFRA debacle and establishing an image of acceptance and equality is crucial for any community looking to increase its economic development foothold. He believes certain quality of life issues like acceptance and equality do make a difference when a
community is trying to recruit business and industry.
“We don’t have the oceans and mountains and the places that some communities do, but neither does Paris, which has lousy weather and no oceans or mountains,” says Brainard. “It’s about the built environment and the culture of any place and we certainly have the ability to build a very special place here and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Most of the people who spoke against the ordinance identified themselves as local residents and/or local clergy. However, those speaking in support of the ordinance either identified themselves as local business owners or involved in the business community, include One Zone president Mo Merhoff. (One Zone is the chamber of commerce organization for Carmel and Fishers.) Merhoff said a similar ordinance will be under consideration in Fishers and has the support of Mayor Scott Fadness with economic development at the forefront of that support.
Other supporters, like former state senate candidate JD Ford, spoke to the council about the need for protection and the desire not to repeat history.
“I am asking for rights that is afforded to everyone else. This ordinance cements those rights into law so that I don't have to worry about being humiliated when I am denied service,” says Ford. “We saw what happened when RFRA was passed. Carmel is taking a bold and decisive step to show the world that we do not discriminate. In doing so, this attracts young talent and businesses to our area.”
Council president Rider announced in the middle of testimony that the council would not take a vote on the proposal that night and the ordinance would instead go to committee for review. Although some supporters were disappointed by the non-vote, Brainard says there is no need to be discouraged.
“The rules would have to be suspended for a vote to happen and that would only happen with unanimous support. We knew going in that council member would vote no so it goes to committee,” says Brainard. (Councilman Eric Seidensticker did not sign up as a sponsor of the proposal and stated he would not support it.)
Despite the committee review, Brainard is confident an ordinance offering equal protections for the LGBT community will pass.
“We want to treat all people with kindness and respect and make certain they are treated equally in the city of Carmel,” says Brainard. “Perception of Hoosier Hospitality was damaged outside the state as a result of the actions of the legislature this spring. We certainly want to broadcast the message that everyone is welcome in Carmel, Indiana and that they would be comfortable living and working here.”