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Birmingham City Council set to debate Human Rights Commission on Tuesday

A pair of nondiscrimination ordinances, which have been in discussion for the last four years, will be on next week’s Birmingham City Council agenda.

​Originally introduced to the Public Safety Committee by Council President Johnathan Austin in 2013, the “Non-Discrimination Ordinance” seeks to protect any person who wishes to enter into a contract with the City of Birmingham from all forms of discrimination, which could be based on, “race, color, religion, natural origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or familial status,” according to the most recent draft.

​One of the resolutions would create the Birmingham Human Rights Commission with the purpose of promoting diversity, inclusion, and harmony within the city by way of receiving complaints and investigating discriminatory practices that are brought to the attention of the eleven-member commission. The commission, however, would not have the power to subpoena or bring a cause of action in the courts.

Austin described the ordinances as “The right thing to do,” and indicated that he did not believe the Council should wait for action to be taken in Montgomery to add protections to citizens. “We haven’t done anything like this, and we’ve just been tossing it around for four years,” Austin said. “There have been bills presented to [the Alabama legislature] every year to add these protections. The state is going to react to whatever we do just like they did with the minimum wage ordinance. There were questions over that. Of course they passed a law the same week. If we sit around and wait, we’ll be waiting forever.”

During a special-called Committee of the Whole meeting on Wednesday, Councilors discussed the implications and possible implementation of establishing the Human Rights Commission and the enforcement of the non-discrimination ordinance. The Councilors also voted to bring both items before the full Council on Tuesday.

“Is there not some other route we can take that doesn’t include the legislature? As long as we don’t have home rule we can’t lay this on the court system,” Valerie Abbott said, outlining her concerns over how the commission could enforce the nondiscrimination ordinance.

Birmingham City Attorney Julie Barnard said that the goal of the ordinances, according to the advocacy groups she has spoken with, are not to “criminalize” the behavior but rather send a message that Birmingham is a city that takes a stand for human rights.“Unfortunately that is the nature of having enforcement be a responsibility of the municipal court,” Barnard said, adding that she is working with Birmingham Municipal Court Presiding Judge Andra Sparks to figure out a way in which the court could handle complaints. “We could stop it at an advisory committee, but the groups we’ve been working with want it to have some teeth, but we’re restricted as to how far we can go with those teeth,” Barnard said.

​Eva Kendrick, Alabama director for the Human Rights Campaign, said she was encouraged by the progress being made, but she hopes to see Council not get “bogged down in the legality” and instead focus on why this is needed. ​“In Alabama, LGBTQ citizens and others who may be under-protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, don’t have local accountability measures when it comes to discrimination,” Kendrick said after Wednesday’s meeting. “What this ordinance would do is it would lead in creating local accountability. It seems like we’re more stuck on, ‘can we do this,’ as opposed to ‘why we need to do this.’

​Alex Smith, executive director of Equality Alabama, was also in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting. “Moving forward I have a measured amount of cautious optimism, given how things have progressed, or not, over the last four years…I think there is a lot of political chess at play. What we have is a city and residents of a city who are yearning for something that will allow them to hold people accountable to discrimination and right now we just don’t have that,” Smith said. “For those people I hope we can have something meaningful come out of this, on whatever timeline.”

​As it stands, Alabama does not provide legal protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Austin believes it’s Birmingham’s responsibility to lead the way. “We need to pass this ordinance and let the legislature react,” Austin said. “We know they’re not going to help us. We have to keep fighting for what we believe is right. They’re going to continue to chip away at sovereignty of this city.”

​Still, some Councilors had questions over the particulars, chiefly, how the ordinance would be enforced in the court system and whether or not the city could impose a fine on contractors that are not found in compliance with the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance. “You gotta have a car with an engine, and right now that looks like it’s not in place,” Councilor Jay Roberson said, referring to the legal ramifications presented by Barnard. “I liked the suggestion of an advisory commission to give us guidance and trying to move an ordinance forward in Birmingham.”

​Councilor Lashunda Scales urged the Council to move forward with the proposed ordinances as a way to show that Birmingham is a city that fights for human equality. “Keeping with the analogy of a car, an engine will never get put in place if we aren’t intentional,” Scales said.

​Changes were made to the proposed ordinances at Wednesday’s meeting including changing the number of appointments to the Human Rights Commission from 9 to 11 members, all of who would be appointed by the council. Members will serve a four-year term and must be a resident of Birmingham to sit on the commission, a body that would present findings or violations to the City Council for further review or potentially levying a fine against a company that violated the nondiscrimination terms.

​Asked if she would be satisfied if the Council passed the ordinances but they were later blocked by the state legislature, Kendrick said, “I will say yes that if there is an enforcement measure then we would have been grateful to a city council that challenged the state legislature to do what is right.”

​This article is a contribution from Cody Owens (coowens@birminghamal.gov) in the Birmingham City Council Public Information Office. For more information please contact 205.254.2294.