A decision whether to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance with an emphasis on gay and transgender rights has divided Elon’s board of aldermen, with the majority of the aldermen holding reservations about forming a new law while the board’s youngest member pushes for its approval.
Discussion of signing a non-discrimination ordinance into law first came before the board in April, and again last Tuesday, when alderman Quinn Ray, who is in his mid-30’s, asked his fellow members to contribute ideas in drawing up the document. Ray’s suggestion comes as other municipalities statewide have begun to adopt similar ordinances since a provision of 2016’s House Bill 2 that prohibited local governments from enacting their own non-discrimination laws expired in December 2020.
According to press reports, the first municipalities to adopt ordinances designating sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes were Hillsborough, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Asheville.
During the initial discussion last month, the Elon aldermen ultimately decided to continue the item to their meeting last week since alderman Davis Montgomery hadn’t been able to attend and offer his input. Still, the April meeting revealed concerns from mayor Jerry Tolley and aldermen Mark Greene and Monti Allison about the weight of creating a law on the matter and what punishments might be in place for those who don’t comply. None on the board, however, at last month’s or last week’s meeting, said that their reservations were associated with a tolerance for discrimination.
Though the April discussion was only accompanied by two emailed comments from town residents, last week’s gathering, which resulted in a discussion over an hour long, was met with a packed, albeit socially-distanced, house. The board ultimately heard from 11 speakers – guests ranged from former alderman John Peterson and Elon University students to two pastors and a handful of homeowners – and received about 35 emailed comments.
Peterson, who chose not to run for re-election in 2019, made his first appearance at town hall since December of that year to urge the aldermen, most of whom he previously served with, to create the ordinance.
“I haven’t been here since I left,” Peterson said, “but this was important enough for me to try to get here and at least share with you my perspective on why I think it’s so important that we support this ordinance.”
“The important thing for me as a former colleague, as a citizen, as a friend, and as a black man in the town of Elon is what it says from a leadership perspective,” he added. “To be proactive, to be supportive of this non-discrimination ordinance, understanding that we don’t know exactly how it will work out as far as the teeth of it, and how we will enforce it, and those kinds of things.”
Randy Orwig, a resident and a pastor at Elon Community Church, pointed to his church, which he described as “inclusive” and welcoming to gay and transgender members. In helping some of those members find employment in the town, Orwig recalled an instance where one of the young adults was hired, then fired three hours later, allegedly due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I would say that if there was a non-discrimination ordinance, maybe there could’ve been something dealt with,” he said. “But when you don’t have those kinds of ways of dealing with it, it just is an unfortunate moment.”
For his part, resident Pete Glidewell, who described himself as the stepfather of two gay sons and co-chair of a local gay and lesbian support group, said, “This country has, from its conception, continually strived to give everybody equal dignity under the law. I think back to my grandmother; she died in 1919. She couldn’t even vote, and she never got to vote.
“The same thing is happening here,” he added. “In order for us to treat everybody with the same and equal dignity in this country, we have to pass ordinances like this. If you did it, I think it would be a beacon of light for the future of treating everybody with the same dignity that we all strive for.”
Glidewell is also a former Democratic Party chairman and congressional candidate.
Other speakers also voiced their support for a non-discrimination ordinance, with several saying that approving it would give them a greater sense of security that they felt had been shaken when a caravan of trucks drove down the town’s main east-west road, East Haggard Avenue, last September on its way to downtown Graham from Ace Speedway. As the vehicles passed through the university’s campus, students and university officials have said, some on sidewalks were verbally harassed.
Still, as alderman Monti Allison later noted, a non-discrimination ordinance doesn’t protect against harassment, only discrimination, such as denying someone employment, refusing public accommodations, or withholding housing based on the following characteristics:
· Race, natural hair or hairstyles, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, pregnancy, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ancestry, National Guard or veteran status, religious belief or non-belief, age, or disability.
Ray, in particular, pointed to the protections based on gender and gender identity, while alderman Emily Sharpe emphasized that the ordinance would apply to veterans, pregnant women, and all religious denominations.
“I think we’ve got to realize what an ordinance is and what it isn’t,” Allison said. “I heard a lot of comments made about people feeling not safe walking down the sidewalks because if someone says something.”
Referring to a staff-provided sampling of other municipalities’ ordinances and a model ordinance that the town manager later told the newspaper was created by LGBTQ organization Equality N.C. and given to staff by alderman Ray, Allison added, “None of these ordinances I’ve read addresses that. We’re talking about accommodations, employment. So, as much as we’d like to stop that, that’s a freedom of speech that those people have the right to do. I don’t want people to think that this is going to eliminate that. Time will take care of that.”
Alderman Davis Montgomery cautioned that a non-discrimination ordinance, in its application to every Elon resident and business, would make the decision to deny one of September’s caravan members those same employment, accommodations, or housing opportunities.
“What a [non-discrimination] ordinance means is that you will hire a member of that convoy,” he said. “If not, you’re subject to somebody saying, ‘You discriminated.’ In a way, it is saying that, because equal is equal, and that’s tough to live with.”
Upon hearing Ray begin to brainstorm steps for drafting an ordinance, the mayor said, “Quinn, I’m not sure most members of this board are ready to put an ordinance together. I think they’re ready to put a committee together to talk about some things.”
“I don’t want this to get swept under the rug, and I’m sure y’all can rest assured that I will always speak about this,” Ray said. “That’s no secret. I respect all of y’all on the board, and however we’ve got to move forward, as long as that step is going in front of the other and we’re not standing still, I’m OK with this.”
Montgomery, for his part, said that he would be in favor of an “equality ordinance.”
“It’s just what’s in that ordinance I think gives some of us some concern, and we want to be very careful about it,” he said of his fellow board members.
After pressing for the formation of a committee to continue exploring a non-discrimination ordinance, Ray was told by the mayor that he was “too committed to an ordinance” to be on the committee; Tolley instead appointed Montgomery and Sharpe to the task.
“I want a couple of people who might not be that committed to an ordinance, but want to do the right thing,” the mayor explained.
“If we’re not moving toward an ordinance, that is not the right thing,” Ray replied. “Even if it’s Emily and Davis putting this together, it’s still to be moving towards an ordinance.”
Read the newspaper’s editorial opinion on the issue, “Elon: Beware the complex issues and land mines hidden in a supposed ‘nondiscrimination’ ordinance”: https://alamancenews.com/elon-beware-the-complex-issues-and-land-mines-hidden-in-a-supposed-nondiscrimination-ordinance/