Athens adopts broad LGBTQ nondiscrimination policy

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The Athens-Clarke County Commission unanimously passed a sweeping LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policy last week and laid the groundwork for the creation of a human rights committee.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in private employment, housing and public accommodations. There are no such protections at the state level. 

The measure, championed by the mayor and the commission’s two LGBTQ members, Mariah Parker and Jesse Houle, also bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, disability, marital status, familial status or veteran/military status.

“The mayor and commission’s purpose in enacting this ordinance is to promote the public health and welfare of all persons who live and work in Athens-Clarke County,” the ordinance said.

The ordinance went into effect immediately upon passage. Mayor Kelly Girtz praised the commission and Athens-Clarke citizens after the vote.

“I appreciate the hard work of everybody on this body and more significantly the hard work of the community in getting us to this point,” he said.

Parker began fighting for the ordinance when she took office in 2018.

“I am immensely proud to finally honor the years of work that dozens of Black, brown and queer organizers across this city have put into this fight with the passage of this landmark legislation,” Parker told Project Q Atlanta. “I look forward to turning my attention to further ways we can make this city safe and inclusive for all.”

Houle, who took office in 2020, said they were relieved to see the ordinance adopted.

“I’m glad that we’ve finally got one on the books,” they said.

Athens is the 13th Georgia city to adopt an inclusive non-discrimination measure, with 12 passing in the last three years. It is the sixth-largest city in Georgia with 127,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz (Photo via Facebook)

‘Missed opportunities’

During the meeting, Houle moved to expand the definitions of familial status and sexual orientation in the ordinance. The broader language would cover polyamorous people and those with sexual orientations other than gay, straight and bisexual. The motion failed after 30 minutes of debate. 

“I don’t see why we would want to fail to recognize people who have other sexual orientations — pansexual, asexual, omnisexual, however someone chooses to identify,” Houle said during the debate.

Several commissioners said that they didn’t want changes to endanger passage of the overall ordinance. Commissioner Patrick Davenport said it could “muddy the efforts” around discrimination in Athens.

“Being maximally inclusive today does not at all endanger this ordinance as a whole,” Parker responded.

The motion failed six votes to four. The vote “dismayed” Houle, they said.

“Those are missed opportunities that before too long will seem like common sense to people,” they told Project Q. “But at the end of the day, we still accomplished something really important. Ultimately, I still feel good about it overall.”

The vote against the motion makes the ordinance fall short of “ensuring protections for all families, not just nuclear ones, and for all LGBTQ+ people, and not just those who identify by traditional terms,” Parker said.

LGBTQ people in Athens-Clarke County have something new to celebrate at their next Pride celebration. They are now protected by the a non-discrimination ordinance. (Photo via Athens Pride)

How it works

Under the new ordinance, a complainant must file with the county attorney within 90 days of the alleged act of discrimination. There are no filing fees. The county attorney reviews initial complaints of alleged violations and appoints a mediator to resolve the issue between both parties.

If mediation doesn’t resolve the complaint within 30 days, and there are grounds that illegal conduct occurred, it goes to the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. The police serve the alleged offender with the complaint and a summons to appear before a hearing officer.

Any person or business found by the hearing officer to have violated the ordinance is subject to a $1,000 fine for each violation. Businesses that violate the ordinance three times will lose their business license. The losing party will have the right to appeal to the Superior Court of Athens-Clarke County.

Exceptions to the ordinance include religiously-oriented businesses that hire employees to perform work related to religious activities. Non-profit private clubs closed to the public and religious organizations operating non-commercial facilities are also exempt.

The measure also directs the commission’s Legislative Review Committee to develop the framework for a human rights committee in Athens-Clarke County. The LRC is to report back to the mayor and commission with details in the next 60 days, according to the ordinance.

Columbus, Ga., is poised to become the next city in Georgia to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. City Councilmember Walker Garrett plans to introduce the measure at the council’s meeting on Aug. 24 with a formal vote on Aug. 31. Religious groups are trying to derail that effort over the measure’s inclusion of LGBTQ protections.

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