Athens to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance

When Mokah Jasmine Johnson organized her first protest in 2016 against General Beauregards, a Confederate-themed bar, she started what would become known as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. This movement has endured over five years and is still as active as ever, but two primary demands from her original action have yet to be fulfilled at the county level.

That’s about to change.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement made two major demands: a human rights committee to hear discrimination complaints and an enforceable anti-discrimination ordinance to hold violators accountable. While the human rights committee is still in the works, the anti-discrimination ordinance is complete and is likely to pass at the next meeting of the ACC Commission.

Protest against discrimination
Protest against General Beauregards in 2016, organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Fighting discrimination on the state and local level

The Georgia legislature has never passed a law banning discrimination based on race, sexual orientation or gender identity, unlike in many states. The civil rights protection that most Georgians do have comes from federal laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 

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But filing a discrimination case with the federal government can be a difficult and intimidating process, which is why many states choose to provide an additional layer of protection. These state laws sometimes also expand on the protection provided, including categories like sexual orientation which were originally left out of the federal laws. These state laws may have become somewhat less necessary in 2020, when the Supreme Court decided that LGTBQ people also deserve protection under the Civil Rights Act. Even so, state anti-discrimination laws are still important as they can provide an easier path for those seeking redress.

Since Georgia lacks most state-level protections against discrimination, several cities have stepped up to fill in the gaps and protect their communities at the local level. Recently, the city of Brookhaven joined Atlanta, Decatur, Clarkston and others in passing a comprehensive local anti-discrimination ordinance. This caught the attention of ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz who assigned the commission’s Legislative Review Committee the task of adapting Brookhaven’s ordinance in early 2020.

After a year of work in committee, Athens’ anti-discrimination ordinance is finally ready for passage.

What would Athens’ Anti-Discrimination Ordinance do?

If Athens’ new anti-discrimination ordinance is passed by the commission, it should help prevent discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status and veteran / military status, all of which are mentioned specifically in the ordinance. Furthermore, it protects against discrimination in employment, employment benefits, public accommodations, property transactions and housing. 

The ordinance also protects those who come forward, preventing any retaliation for filing a complaint, which would be considered a second violation of the ordinance.

The ordinance is enforced through the potential consequence of a $1,000 fine for each violation. Businesses who violate the ordinance repeatedly may even be prevented from operating anywhere in the county after their third offense. But before resorting to punitive measures like these, a mediation process may take place between the complainant and the alleged violator. If the issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, no fine would be levied.

There are a number of exceptions in the ordinance, such as for religious institutions, affirmative action programs and private, non-profit clubs (such as the country club). Also, those accused of discrimination are always allowed to make an appeal to the ACC Superior Court. Lastly, it’s important to note that this ordinance does not explicitly ban racist speech, as long as that speech doesn’t prevent someone from receiving equal access to employment, public accommodations or housing. For example, it may not be able to prevent bars from naming drinks using racial slurs, as General Beauregards was accused of doing.

Was anything left out of the ordinance?

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Commissioner Jesse Houle, who was involved in drafting the ordinance as part of their role on the Legislative Review Committee, told APN that they regretted not including protections for undocumented immigrants. Immigration status was left out because it is not protected under US law and would likely not provide any legal benefit even if included. 

Likewise, the committee left out protections for certain hair styles that are often discriminated against, such as dreadlocks. Explaining why, Houle mentioned a recent federal court case in which a circuit court upheld the right of employers to refuse to hire someone with dreadlocks, as well as a separate case happening elsewhere in Georgia.

“Barring someone from entering because they have dreads, to me, seems like something that obviously should be counted as discrimination,” Houle said. “But we can’t put that in there and expect it to hold up.”

Despite the challenges involved, Houle said they would defer to community wishes about how much legal risk commissioners should accept while trying to protect people who have suffered discrimination. “What we’ve tried to do is arrive at a document that we feel is likely to hold up, or at least make a very strong case, in court. But if the people really feel that we need to go further, regardless of where that leaves us in terms of liability, I think we should take that seriously.”

What about polyamory?

During the final Legislative Review Committee meeting on the subject, Houle asked their colleagues to consider including protection for polyamory in the document. Commissioners Mariah Parker and Carol Myers agreed with Houle’s suggestion, which passed out of committee in a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Allison Wright and Ovita Thornton were opposed.

Wait, what’s polyamory?

According to the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, polyamory is “the practice or philosophy where someone has, or is open to having, multiple loving partners simultaneously with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.” It’s a relationship style where those involved consent for their partner(s) to be involved with other romantic partner(s).

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, one in nine Americans have been or currently are involved in a polyamorous relationship. The researchers found that such relationships are common “among people from a range of diverse racial, political, income, religious and geographic backgrounds.”

Yet, those involved in polyamorous relationships can sometimes face stigma or outright discrimination

“People have their children taken away. People lose their housing for being in polyamorous relationships. There’s a general narrative, influenced by religious ideals, that multiple partners is wrong, in the same way some see homosexuality or transgender identities as wrong,” Houle said.

Will protection for polyamory be included in the ordinance?

At Houle’s request, the Legislative Review Committee amended their definition of familial status to include “an individual’s past, current, or prospective status as having multiple intimate relationships” in the 3-2 vote mentioned above. Then, the committee voted unanimously to send the anti-discrimination ordinance to the full commission for a vote, which will likely take place on August 3.

There might be additional changes to the ordinance before the final vote. For example, Wright and Thornton were joined by Commissioners Russell Edwards and Mike Hamby in creating an alternate proposal which would remove any reference to multiple relationships in the final version, if supported by at least two other commissioners.

When asked by Houle at their meeting on July 20 why she presented the alternate proposal, Wright said that the definition in her version was “the legal definition, versus the last-minute change that happened in [the Legislative Review Committee]”, perhaps implying that she felt Houle’s change may not hold up in court.

Regardless of how the disagreement around polyamory is ultimately resolved, the commission seems to be in agreement on the bulk of the ordinance and it should have no trouble passing on August 3.

UPDATE (8/3/21): The ACC Commission passed the anti-discrimination ordinance unanimously after removing protections for people in multiple relationships. The definition of sexual orientation was also weakened somewhat in the final version, being refined to protect only “actual or perceived sexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.” This means the ordinance no longer protects asexual and pansexual people, for example.

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