Dig Baton Rouge

Progress?

By Nick BeJeaux

One week ago the Baton Rouge Metro Council decided to hold off on voting yea or nay on the controversial “fairness ordinance” after hours of debate, but the vote isn’t what’s making news.

Who’s supporting the ordinance is.

A widely circulated – and disputed – statistic determined by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation states that 62 percent of East Baton Rouge citizens are in favor of local protections from discrimination based on color, sex, gender, veteran status, disabilities, sexual orientation or religion. The Council meeting on Wednesday, July 23, seemed to mirror that number, as it was one of the few times were supporters of the issue seemed to outnumber the opponents.

Business executives from companies like Lamar Advertising, Chase Bank, and the Albemarle Corp. urged the council to pass the ordinance so that Baton Rouge can compete with cities that have created similar protections from discrimination. While many voiced their support – and opposition – on the premise of religion, some business leaders stated that such an ordinance is simply good for business.

“We recruit nationally for the best. These are bright, curious people who are not only interested in our schools and neighborhoods, but also quality of life,” said Kevin Reilly, Chairman of Lamar Advertising. “My feeling is that if you can vote for this ordinance, you’re going to give all of the people it protects another reason to come to Baton Rouge.”

Luther Kissam, the CEO of Albemarle, argued as a leader of an international company that attracting the best, brightest and most diverse work force possible is key to Baton Rouge’s future success.

“A diverse workforce is absolutely critical to our continued prosperity,” he said. “Having Baton Rouge viewed as a welcoming diverse city is a must if international companies, like Albemarle, can prosper while being headquartered here. I personally believe that this ordinance does just that.”

Even City-Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden voiced his support for the law. Even though these protections extend beyond sexual orientation, the LGBT aspect has dominated the discussion of this ordinance. Holden addressed the religious opposition, saying that it is unreasonable and divisive.

“We’ve all fallen short,” he said. “The debate from this point on should be how we can mend the differences between each other, not whether a person is gay or lesbian or whatever title you choose to put on that person. You do not know what will happen in the future, but you may be at the hands of the one you criticize – that could be the person to save your life.”

However, one of the most dramatic demonstrations of support came from a man who walked into the council chambers determined to stop the ordinance. In fact, he may very well have been the most impassioned supporter of the ordinance.

“I was originally against this, but I am now for this ordinance,” said Reverend Reginald Pitcher, who has worked as a pastor and a civil rights activist in Baton Rouge for 40 years. “I was against this ordinance because I thought it singled out a group of people and gave them special treatment. But what I know now is that you are discriminating against these people…You’re using the cloak of Christianity and I don’t want to be a part of that.”

The Tuesday morning before the meeting, Pitcher appeared on the Jim Engster show to speak against the ordinance. However, after listening to his own comments on the radio and the from the opponents in the council chambers, Pitcher had a sudden and intense change of heart.

“I went back and I listened to the tape, and what I heard on that program was George Wallace all over again personified in me because of the intolerance I felt,” he said. “I said it wasn’t about homosexuality, but it was. I didn’t have it in myself to accept the difference in another group of people because I didn’t want to see past the homosexuality.”

The next Council meeting will be held on Aug. 13.

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