Worthington is looking to become the third city in Franklin County to establish a nondiscrimination ordinance to bolster legal protections for LGBTQ people.
City council is set to formally introduce the legislation in April, following weeks of discussion and tweaks to the proposal by the city’s Community Relations Commission.
The ordinance would make it illegal to deny employment, housing or other public accommodations in Worthington on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression. It also would extend those protections to colleges and universities.
City Council President Bonnie Michael said Worthington believes in equality and acceptance, and the nondiscrimination ordinance is an amplification of those values.
“It’d be nice if this type of thing didn’t have to be done community by community,” Michael said, referencing the lack of statewide protections.
Ohio is among 28 states where sexual orientation and gender expression are not protected classes, according to Freedom for All Americans, a campaign working to extend protections for LGBTQ people nationwide.
However, Columbus, Bexley and 19 other cities in the state, as well as Cuyahoga and Summit counties, have nondiscrimination ordinances.
“Local communities really have to take this up themselves if they want to be seen as welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ people,” said Grant Stancliff, communications director for the advocacy group Equality Ohio. “Most people don’t know that it’s generally legal in Ohio to fire someone because they’re gay.”
A bill that would prohibit discrimination in Ohio on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity statewide was first introduced in the Ohio House in 2009 by Sen. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood. But the bill — known as the Ohio Fairness Act — hasn’t made much headway in Republican-dominated legislatures.
The latest iteration, which has some bipartisan support and was discussed Wednesday at a hearing of the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee, would update the state’s anti-discrimination laws to include employment, housing and public-accommodation protections for members of the LGBTQ community.
Although a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Ohioans can still be denied housing, employment or services based on sexual orientation or gender expression without repercussions to the employer, business or landlord.
Worthington’s ordinance has been in the works for about a year, said Jack Miner, chair of the nine-member CRC, which advises the council on matters related to “fair and equal treatment” for all people, according to the city’s website.
At a recent meeting, council members and the CRC went over a second draft of the ordinance that includes changes to how the city would investigate claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Public forums also have been held, and the city is still gathering feedback on the ordinance’s final language, Michael said. The focus is largely on shoring up the enforcement process, she said.
Worthington would forward discrimination claims involving state-protected classes, such as race and gender, to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
For cases the city ends up handling — those dealing with Worthington-specific classes, such as sexual orientation, gender expression and marital status — voluntary mediation is offered first, Miner said.
But if mediation is unsuccessful, under the current proposal Worthington could hire outside counsel to further investigate the discrimination claims. If there is evidence of probable cause, a city-run hearing will be held that, ultimately, could result in a guilty party being issued a cease-and-desist order and a fine.
The amount of the fine could range from a maximum of $1,000 for a first-time offender to $5,000 for three guilty offenses in a five-year period.
The penalties are civil, not criminal offenses, which Stancliff said Equality Ohio said is the best approach.
“It’s not about throwing people in jail because they discriminate,” Stancliff said. “It’s about an opportunity to educate people and to get the community in a place where people understand what discrimination is and why it’s wrong.”
The feedback received by the CRC in its public meetings has largely been positive, Miner said, adding that both the business and faith communities have been supportive. The draft ordinance includes exemptions for religious groups.
While the proposal may receive additional tweaks, Miner is hopeful Worthington’s nondiscrimination ordinance will become law.
“This is an opportunity to say who we are,” he said