Savannah approves broad protections for LGBTQ people

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Savannah adopted a sweeping ordinance that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in private employment, housing and public accommodations while also mandating improved hate crimes reporting by law enforcement.

The City Council passed the measure unanimously on June 23 and became the latest municipality in Georgia to extend protections to LGBTQ people and include them among 13 protected classes. The measure expands an ordinance passed in 2015 that protected the city’s LGBTQ employees from discrimination.

The nondiscrimination ordinance was championed by City Alderman Kurtis Purtee (photo), the council’s only LGBTQ member, and the new PROUD Savannah, which is an LGBT task force of elected officials, community activists, non-profit leaders and city staff.

“This is just the beginning. This is the first step. We’ve got a lot more work to do,” Purtee said before the council approved the measure.

“This is something that a lot of us have fought for – for most of our lives,” he added.

The ordinance bans discrimination based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status or veteran/military status. The ordinance is similar to ones passed recently in several Georgia cities, including most recently in East Point.

Mayor Van Johnson thanked Purtee for his “considerable time and considerable work” on the nondiscrimination ordinance.

“All of us had committed at one time or another in working with our partners to make sure that Savannah was and worked toward becoming the beloved community – and that is where we don’t discriminate against anybody for any reason,” Johnson said.

At least nine cities in the state have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances that ban bias in private employment, housing and public accommodations. They include Atlanta, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Clarkston, Decatur, Doraville, Dunwoody, East Point and Savannah.

Cities in DeKalb, Gwinnett, Clarke and Bibb counties are considering similar ordinances, according to Georgia Equality.

Candace Hardnett, a pastor and chair of PROUD Savannah, applauded the council for passing the ordinance.

“You promised that you would hear us, you promised that you would give us space to raise our voices, and you have done just that. And so we thank you. On behalf of the LGBTQ community, we thank you,” Hardnett said.

“This is history in the making. Savannah has always been ahead of the curve yet again. We do what many cities have yet to do. We thank you for pushing Savannah forward,” she added.

Savannah mandates hate crimes tracking

The ordinance also requires the city to develop guidelines to track and investigate hate crimes and train its law enforcement personnel on hate crimes. It also mandates that the Savannah Police Department track hate crimes and provide annual statistics about the crimes.

In 2019, Dunwoody passed a nondiscrimination measure that also addressed hate crimes reporting. Johns Creek and Sandy Springs have adopted ordinances enhancing penalties for hate crimes.

In Savannah, the new ordinance – like those in metro Atlanta cities – calls for the municipality to review initial complaints of alleged violations and then refer the case to an independent mediator. A complaint must be filed within 90 days of the alleged act of discrimination and include a $50 filing fee.

A hearing officer will review the complaint to determine if it meets the requirements of the nondiscrimination ordinance, and if so, the officer will refer it to a mediator for non-binding and voluntary mediation. If mediation fails, a hearing officer can investigate and either dismiss the complaint or rule that a violation has occurred.

A first offense results in a $500 fine, which increases to $1,000 for additional offenses.

The ordinance carves out a handful of exceptions, including a religiously oriented business that hires employees to perform work related to religious activities, non-profit private clubs not open to the public and religious organizations operating non-commercial facilities.

The fees for the hearing officer and the mediator are assessed to the non-prevailing party in the complaint, though the ordinance spells out exceptions to that.

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