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Stalled in Congress, LGBTQ Rights Advance at Local Level

by Associated Press /
Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, center, is hugged after the Jacksonville City Council voted 12-6 to support the Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville, Florida on Feb. 14, 2017.Bob Mack / Florida Times-Union via AP file

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At the U.S. Capitol and in most statehouses nationwide, supporters of LGBTQ rights are unable to make major gains these days. Instead, they're notching victories in seemingly unlikely venues, such as Morgantown, West Virginia, and Birmingham, Alabama.

They are among scores of cities and towns in Republican-governed states that have acted on their own, passing resolutions and ordinances pledging nondiscrimination protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the absence of comparable statewide laws.

De Pere, Wisconsin — a Green Bay suburb not noted for LGBTQ activism — took a big step last week toward joining the movement. After an intense public meeting, its city council gave preliminary approval on a 5-4 vote to a measure that would broaden the local nondiscrimination ordinance to cover transgender people. The measure would prohibit businesses, employers and landlords from discriminating against people due to their gender identify.

Alderman Casey Nelson, who introduced the measure, said he wasn't sure if anti-transgender bias was a problem in De Pere, but he wanted to send a message that the city of about 25,000 was welcoming and tolerant.

"Can you imagine living in a community that refuses to accept you for who you are?" Nelson asked.

Advocacy groups say several hundred municipalities across the country have LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bias measures — many of them in the 31 states that lack fully inclusive statewide laws.

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Skeptics say the local laws, in some cases, are mostly symbolic and not zealously enforced. Yet LGBTQ activists view them as a heartening barometer of nationwide support at a time when President Donald Trump's administration has taken multiple steps that jeopardize LGBTQ rights — including weakening protections for transgender students and seeking to ban transgender people from military service.

Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, was among the most recent additions to the list of communities taking LGBTQ-friendly action. Its seven-member city council voted unanimously on Oct. 17 to extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people.

Mayor Bill Kawecki says the action "simply verbalized the kind of community I really hope that we are."

Earlier in the year, two big cities in South, GOP-led states — Jacksonville, Florida, and Birmingham — adopted similar ordinances. Birmingham became the first Alabama city to take the step; Jacksonville had been one of the most populous U.S. cities that lacked such a law.

In contrast, majority Republicans in Congress have shown no interest in considering a Democratic-backed bill called the Equality Act that would extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people nationwide. Companion bills in the House and Senate have a total of two GOP co-sponsors.

The congressional impasse leaves it up to individual states to set their own policies, but there has been little action recently. Since 2009, Utah is the only state where lawmakers have voted to join the minority of other states which extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people. And Utah went only part way — applying the protections to employment and housing but not public accommodations.

In states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, where the electorate is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, efforts to enact inclusive anti-bias laws have been rebuffed by the GOP-dominated legislatures.

The GOP-led legislatures in Arkansas and Tennessee have gone a step further — enacting laws barring municipalities from passing their own LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances. In Arkansas, the attorney general is asking the state Supreme Court to prevent the city of Fayetteville from enforcing an ordinance of that nature that it passed in 2015.

Attorney Matt Sharp, senior counsel with the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, said laws like those in Arkansas and Tennessee are designed to spare businesses from having to comply with a patchwork of different anti-bias laws from one city to another.

Allen Whitt, president of the conservative Family Policy Council of West Virginia, predicted that legislators in his state would propose laws next year that would emulate Arkansas and Tennessee and strike down the local LGBTQ-friendly ordinances.

Whitt was on hand when Morgantown passed its anti-bias ordinance, and spoke against it.

These ordinances "should be rejected by every city and state because they discriminate against diversity of thought," Whitt said later in an email. "They are examples of political bullying and liberal city council thuggery at its worst."

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LGBTQ advocacy groups point out what they see as hypocrisy by conservative Republicans on the issue.

"It's ironic that the party of small government wants to interfere with cities which want to provide common sense protections for all their citizens," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights group.

When De Pere's health board discussed the ordinance in October, supporters in the audience included Annette and John Grunseth from the neighboring town of Allouez, whose adult daughter is transgender.

"Are you concerned about somebody attacking you because of your gender identity?" John Grunseth asked the board. "I bet most of us don't even think about that, but this is constantly on our daughter's mind."

Wisconsin is one of two states, along with New Hampshire, that extend nondiscrimination protections to gays and lesbians, but not to transgender people. A transgender-inclusive statewide bill is backed by Wisconsin Democrats but has dim prospects due to opposition from majority Republicans.

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