Smyrna adopted a comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinance on Monday, becoming the latest city in Georgia – and the first in Cobb County – to protect LGBTQ people in private employment, housing and public accommodations.
The City Council approved the measure in a 6-1 vote that came after a public hearing last month to fine-tune an ordinance that’s been under consideration for months.
“This city government has been very clear that discrimination has no place in the City of Smyrna and that this is a place that welcomes everyone,” Mayor Derek Norton (top photo) said.
“We wanted this to be fully vetted. We wanted to get this right and make sure that everybody had an opportunity to participate in the process. We also wanted to make sure that we avoided any unintended consequences. So with substantial input from all perspectives over several months, I believe we have a strong ordinance and a very good process,” he added.
The lone vote against the nondiscrimination ordinance came from Council member Corkey Welch, who has opposed LGBTQ initiatives for years. In 2014, he cited a “moral issue” with gay people in opposing extending domestic partner benefits to city workers.
‘My issue is with gender identity’
On Monday, Welch (second photo) trotted out tired transphobic tropes about nondiscrimination ordinances providing cover for “people in drag” assaulting women and children in restrooms.
“I have no issues with race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, homeless status, disability, marital status, veteran/military status or the age parts of this ordinance,” Welch said. “My single issue is with that of gender identity. This has been my position from the very beginning of our discussions on this ordinance.”
Including gender identity in the ordinance would trample on his rights, Welch claimed.
“My reason is simple. None of these other identified discrimination, genders or anything else imposes upon my rights. But the gender identity has that ability to impose upon my rights and the rights of my wife, my children, my grandchildren. It opens up the door for abuse by individuals wishing to create havoc on other people’s lives,” he said.
Welch cited five instances in locker rooms, restrooms or shelters in which suspects claimed to be transgender or dressed in drag as they committed the assaults. He warned that the nondiscrimination ordinance would open the door to that criminal behavior in Smyrna.
“I’m not saying that this is going to happen in Smyrna, Georgia. But I am saying that this ordinance makes it at least a little bit easier for that to happen here. These are just a few examples of the issues that we are facing. That’s not all. There are other issues out there that are a problem with this ordinance,” Welch said.
‘No place for discrimination in Smyrna’
Council member Austin Wagner (third photo) dismissed Welch’s concerns and criticized his comments as “inappropriate and not correct.”
“People going into bathrooms with or without a nondiscrimination ordinance to go into to abuse somebody or to engage in other criminal activity, we have laws that cover that,” Wagner said. “This doesn’t make that any easier. It doesn’t make it any harder. It changes nothing about what the government would do and what this community would do if somebody was trying to engage in any kind of criminal activity.”
“Any insinuation whether intentional or unintentional that transgender individuals would be more likely to commit these types of crimes, I think that insinuation is inappropriate and not correct. I want to make sure that is said at some point as well,” he added.
Other council members – including Mayor Pro Tem Tim Gould, Travis Lindley, Susan Wilkinson and Lewis Wheaton, who championed the measure – spoke in favor of the ordinance.
“We’ve done a good job of crafting an ordinance that is creative and helps move our city forward and does state our values – that there is no place for discrimination here in the City of Smyrna,” Gould said. “Anyone in our city deserves the same rights that I have, and likewise I should not be treated any better or worse than anyone here in Smyrna.”
Lindley also pointed to the carve-outs in the ordinance for schools and churches.
“It’s an important step forward and I think will speak volumes to the rest of our county and region. I believe it provides important and robust safeguards for our religious institutions and our churches,” Lindley said.
Wheaton boiled his support for the measure down to what he called a simple question.
“The core question for me at the end of the day is, do people who are obeying the laws, doing the right thing, living normal lives, good existences, law-abiding existences in the city deserve to be discriminated against? To me, it’s that simple,” he said.
The measure takes effect on Sept. 15.
The ordinance bans discrimination based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, homeless status, disability, marital status or veteran/military status. The ordinance also prohibits discrimination against people ages 40 and over.
Similar ordinances passed recently in metro Atlanta include ancestry and familial status, while Smyrna’s does not. But the city includes homeless status as a protected category and others do not. Smyrna’s ordinance does not address hate crimes reporting, while some in other cities do.
Smyrna’s new ordinance also spells out a different process for enforcement. Like most of the ordinances, an attorney hired by the city reviews initial complaints of discrimination, which are to be filed with the Municipal Court Clerk. If the complaint is upheld, the measure then requires the attorney to host a mediation session between the complainant and the accused.
After the conference, if the complainant is dissatisfied with the process or the accused fails to participate, the matter is turned over to the Smyrna Municipal Court. The city solicitor is then tasked with prosecuting the allegations as an ordinance violation. Upon conviction, violators shall be fined up to $1,000, according to the ordinance.
Many of the nondiscrimination ordinances passed in other metro Atlanta cities require a professional mediator to be hired to hear the complaint. After a ruling, the losing party is ordered to pay for the mediation.
“If someone discriminates, and it meets the definition of just pure discrimination, and they don’t work it out, then it’s an ordinance violation and it’s prosecuted in our court like any other ordinance violation and that’s the end of it,” said City Attorney Scott Cochran, who wrote the ordinance.
10 Georgia cities adopt similar ordinances
Now, at least 10 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, Savannah and Smyrna.
The effort to pass the ordinances in metro Atlanta cities has been spearheaded in part by Stephe Koontz (bottom photo), the transgender Doraville City Council member who took office in 2018 and helped that city pass a nondiscrimination ordinance later that year.
“My hope when Doraville passed its NDO was other cities would use my language as a basis for these to pass across metro Atlanta,” Koontz said. “It looks like that is exactly what is happening.”