The debate continues about the Indiana General Assembly’s recent passage of S.B. 101, a.k.a. the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Co-sponsored by Wayne County’s own Representative Richard Hamm and signed into law by Governor Mike Pence, the law is designed to be a loophole in recent progress affirming and protecting civil rights, under cover of seeking to minimize government disruption in the practice of religious beliefs. The bill and bumbling attempts to defend or “clarify” it have been an embarrassment to the State of Indiana, and to all who seek to promote diversity and inclusion in the region.
It’s been gratifying to see so many people, organizations and businesses in our local community speak out against the discrimination this new law facilitates. These pronouncements have come from across the political spectrum and many different cross-sections of our city. They help us see that the agenda of bigoted lawmakers and lobbyists does not represent the will of Richmond, Indiana.
Still, Richmond has a troubled past when it comes to protecting people from discrimination. If we truly want to show that our town is against discrimination, that past is one we probably need to confront and heal as a part of moving forward.
For example: In October of 2000 the City of Richmond government was considering an updated affirmative action ordinance, which states policies and goals around hiring and managing city employees without regard to their “race, creed, sex, color, religion, or national origin.”
A modification was suggested – the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class of city employee – and what was a procedural policy update became a divisive political battle. It was made worse when the director of the City’s Human Rights Commission at the time, Ron Chappell, spoke
in his official capacity against the inclusion of the new protection, due to conflicts with his personal religious beliefs.
From the October 1, 2000 Palladium-Item:
Chappell based his opposition on teachings in the Bible in which “God condemns (homosexuality) in several places.”
He also said, “Behaviors regarding homosexuality are chosen behaviors that are against what we know to be the norm. It’s unsanitary. It’s physically damaging. It’s socially damaging. It has a negative impact in terms of how it impacts on our society and the people involved.”
Again, that was the Director of the Richmond Human Rights Commission.
(Clarification: Chappell was not technically acting in his role as Director in making those comments, but observers at the time were understandably concerned about the blurring of lines there.)
In an October 17, 2000 Palladium-Item article, then Councilman Paul Combs summed up the political ignorance of the time – willful or not – when asked why he was voting against the new protection language:
I don’t understand why it is necessary to include (sexual orientation). I have never been given one example of a person who was not hired, was fired and anything else, because of sexual orientation.
By a 6-3 vote, the Council passed a revised ordinance that did not include the new language. Republican councilmen Bruce Wissel, Karl Sharp, Bing Welch, Paul Combs and Larry Parker voted for the ordinance without the new language, while Democrats Jack Elstro, Etta Lundy and Sally Hutton voted against.
To this day, Richmond’s affirmative action ordinance does not protect people from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
Some in Richmond recognized that battle as indicative of a need for more community conversation and resources around protecting human rights. But we went in the wrong direction when in 2010 and 2011 members of City Council sought to reduce funding for, and then completely eliminate Richmond’s Human Rights Commission.
Chappell was no longer at the helm and the group was beginning to restore its role as an advocate for everyone’s human rights, not just those that fit with a particular religious view. With the economy suffering, unemployment at its highest in decades, and many in Richmond feeling the hardship of income inequality – on top of existing community divides along racial and class lines – it was a time when the need for formal efforts to protect civil and human rights may have been at its greatest in recent history.
Still, Council introduced an ordinance to take away the Commission’s funding (just 0.2% of the total City budget), and at the same time didn’t offer any practical or reasonable alternatives to meet that community need. Their suggestion? People being discriminated against could drive to Indianapolis for help.
Councilwoman Kelley Cruse-Nicholson described the disproportionate action in the October 1, 2010 Palladium-Item:
Human rights is the only department in our budget that lost all its funding. And (human rights director) Ron Church is the only city employee who lost an active position…The appearance is that the Human Rights Commission was targeted and has been targeted the last two years.
Hundreds of people attended Council meetings to implore the body to find another way. Temporary solutions were found, only to be shot down. Even the Chief of Police asked the City to keep the HRC active – good luck finding many other communities where that has happened.
In the end, the Council voted 8-1 to approve a budget that effectively closed the office. Council members Jack Elstro, Bruce Wissel, Bing Welch, Larry Parker, Diana Pappin, Bob Goodwin, Phil Quinn and Clay Miller voted in favor of the budget containing the defunding measure, while Kelley Cruse-Nicholson voted against.
Today, Richmond still wrestles with our commitment to protecting civil rights. There is no governmental entity that actively works as a protective resource for disadvantaged citizens. The closest we have is the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono Commission, a not-for-profit organization that provides legal assistance to local residents for civil cases where they couldn’t otherwise afford representation. But they, too, struggle for support and funding. At least the City of Richmond houses them in the City building at a discount.
So questions start to come up. How are we helping a low-income person wrestling with an irresponsible or even racist landlord? How are we making sure that a gay person who was discriminated against in their workplace has the support they need to file suit? How are we working to make sure women in our workforce aren’t being under-paid or passed over for promotions because of their gender? And what message are we sending to our children when we say we oppose discrimination at the state level, but allow a slow eroding of civil rights protections at the local level?
Certainly, many perspectives and attitudes have shifted on these matters over the last 15 years. Some of the Council members named above might even vote differently today on these issues, given the chance. And there’s much to celebrate in the unity demonstrated over recent days around the disturbing intentions of S.B. 101.
But we still have to ask: how will our outrage at state-level incompetence and insensitivity translate to action here at home?
We could start with adding sexual orientation to our City’s affirmative action policy. That would right a wrong from 15 years ago, and would show that we’re going to go beyond stickers, Tweets and Facebook likes in our support of our LGTBQ residents and workers.
We could ask hard questions of candidates currently running for office. “Are you committed to making the City of Richmond a diverse, inclusive and welcoming place for all people, regardless of your personal religious beliefs?”
We could formalize funding and support for the Pro Bono law office so their team can spend time helping people instead of fundraising…a reasonable if not comprehensive replacement for the Human Rights Commission.
Most importantly, in our households, board rooms and employee lounges, we can have those hard conversations that we need to have.
What are our biases? What are we doing here to make sure we’re not discriminating?
Are we standing up for people who may not otherwise have an advocate or voice?
What action can we take to contribute to diversity and inclusion in this place?
Edited from the original: to clarify that HRC Director Ron Chappell was not technically acting in that role when speaking against the revised affirmative action policy. Thanks to Bob Hunter for pointing this out.