Tucker nondiscrimination ordinance hearing draws large crowd to city hallA person speaks in favor of passing the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance during a May 8, 2023, public hearing at Tucker City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.
This story has been updated.
Tucker, GA – People packed Tucker City Hall on May 8 for a first read and public hearing about a nondiscrimination ordinance under consideration by the city council.
Speakers both for and against the ordinance dominated public comment during the meeting.
The ordinance, presented by Councilmember Virginia Rece, Councilmember Cara Schroeder, and Mayor Pro Tem Anne Lerner, has been discussed in Tucker since 2019 and was an issue in the 2021 mayoral election. An NDO working group was formed in April 2022 which included Lerner, Schroeder, and Rece.
Mayor Frank Auman pointed out that it was the first time that the city council had considered an ordinance written by council members, as well as the first time that the city had considered a law regarding a social justice issue.
Lerner gave a presentation on the ordinance, which began with an overview of the process. She reminded attendees that no decisions are made at a first-read public hearing, and responded to some criticisms of the NDO.
Lerner outlined the NDO working group’s process, including meeting with faith groups, lawyers, businesses and residents. Lerner said that the working group looked at NDOs adopted by other municipalities and what happened after they were passed.
Lerner said that the ordinance is written to defer to applicable state and federal law, but that there are gaps in existing law that the ordinance seeks to remedy. Lerner said that the religious exceptions in Tucker’s NDO are broader than those in an NDO adopted by Smyrna.
Lerner said that there has been no exodus from surrounding cities based on passage of an ordinance, and the existence of a local mediation process will help to avoid the need to hire lawyers. Requirements for a $50 filing fee, a sworn statement and a hearing officer will tend to protect against frivolous claims.
Rece said, “We wanted to present something that the entire city could feel good about, that would be just.”
Councilmember Roger Orlando thanked Lerner, Rece, and Schroeder for the amount of work they put into the ordinance, and expressed some reservations.
“Judging from the 65 to 80 emails I received this week and my meetings with faith leaders and residents, this document may be seen more as polarizing rather than being fair to everyone. That is troubling to me,” Orlando said.
However, Orlando acknowledged that the ordinance is intended to do good and expressed the view that if passed, it will do more good than harm.
Many commenters both for and against made arguments based on their religious convictions, and Christian clergy were well-represented. Three Presbyterian ministers spoke…two in favor of the NDO, one opposed.
Rev. Joy Fisher, a Presbyterian minister and a resident of Tucker, said discrimination still happens in our community. This ordinance says that Tucker will champion your rights.”
Rev. Camille LeBron Powell of St. Andrews Presbyterian said, “I wish we didn’t need an ordinance like this. Unfortunately, we keep showing that we need an ordinance like this.”
“I urge you to live your hopes and not your fears and pass this ordinance,” Powell said.
Rev. Erik Veerman of Tucker Presbyterian, along with several who spoke in opposition, requested a delay and more public discussion before passing the ordinance.
Veerman went on to describe scenarios in which he thought the NDO would be problematic. One scenario was a counseling center for abused women rescued from sex trafficking that wished to restrict employment of those who work directly with those clients to biological women who identify as women.
Pastor Stephen Atkerson of Atlanta Reformation Fellowship requested more time and discussion with faith leaders before voting on the ordinance.
Rev. Troy Bush of Rehoboth Baptist Church, along with several members of his congregation, objected that the religious exceptions in the NDO, which allow churches to require practicing their faith as a condition of employment, would themselves cause problems.
Bush asserted that the ordinance will require religious organizations to apply a religious test to employees, and that in turn the city will have to apply a religious test to determine whether the ordinance has been violated.
“It narrows the group of people who can freely practice their religious beliefs in Tucker, and all others must comply,” Bush said.
Most who spoke in opposition emphasized that they believed that everyone should be treated fairly and with respect, but framed the NDO as pitting the rights of one group against another.
“This is like a family with two kids, and you try to make a law to protect one,” said Apostle Edwin Ojo of New Life Believers.
Rev. Tom Edmondson of First Christian Church of Atlanta, which is located in Tucker, spoke about how the United States has not always lived up to its ideals of equality, and how struggles with inclusion in the early Christian church led to the creation of the office of deacon.
Edmondson acknowledged that the government can’t enforce the principle of “love your neighbor.”
“But when hatred takes action and commits injustices against other citizens, it is the role of government to see that those injustices are dealt with properly, that they are curtailed,” Edmondson said.
Some opposed to the ordinance expressed opinions that it was a distraction from the basics of local government such as paving streets, while others were concerned that it could prove expensive for the city by entangling it in litigation.
Resident Alan Simmons echoed sentiments expressed by several others. “I believe that the intent of the ordinance is to protect all people, but it’s possible that it could be weaponized,” Simmons said.
Resident Carmel Booth was impatient with such fears.
“I understand churches have their protections. Show me one church that has been prosecuted,” Booth said.
However, referring to members of the LGBT community, racial minorities, and women, Booth said, “Every one of us has been discriminated against.”
Several speakers offered experiences from their own lives as examples of why the NDO is necessary.
Feroza Syed, a broker at Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty, said that she has lived in Tucker for about ten years. “I own my own home and I pay taxes here,” she added.
“When you look at me, what do you see? I assume you would say an Indian woman. What you might not see is that I am a trans Indian woman. You see, perception can be everything,” Syed said.
Syed went on to say that an NDO is needed in Tucker because the perception that Tucker is a safe and supportive community for everyone will benefit the community as a whole.
Syed spoke of her experiences of having been fired from jobs and physically assaulted in the past. “I want to feel safe in my community, but more importantly, I want those who don’t have the passing privilege that I have to feel safe in our community,” Syed said.
Syed said that an NDO will have practical benefits.
“As a broker and real estate agent I’ve seen how values increase in areas that have NDOs and I want to see Tucker continue to grow,” Syed said.
Robin Biro, who supported Tucker passing an NDO as part of his campaign for mayor in 2021, spoke of being assaulted at 12 and later excluded from church services for being gay before he realized it himself.
“I hope for a more equitable future for my children. That hope lies right up there with you,” Biro said.
Biro also said that as a deacon at First Christian Church, he felt that the exceptions for religious faith in the ordinance protected First Amendment rights.
Some speakers who signed up to speak against the ordinance seemed more opposed to the necessity of it than the spirit. Resident Rodney Rainwater said, “If we claim to be religious, the spirit should move through us to treat our neighbor as ourselves. Every person is made in the image of God, and it is disheartening when we don’t treat each other that way. If we learn to live that, conversations like this won’t be necessary.”
Auman said he had hoped to reach a point of consensus because the ordinance had the potential to be divisive.
“I think the time we’ve spent has been valuable. I think we’re on our way to a solution that we can all live with,” Auman said.
However, Auman went on to give an extensive list of objections, some of which he acknowledged would anger the listeners. Auman’s objections ranged from practical concerns about how it will affect the 1,200 businesses in Tucker with fewer than 10 employees (which are not affected by existing federal equal opportunity regulations) to highly speculative scenarios involving pedophiles as a potential protected category.
Auman asserted that, in effect, every person and property owner in the city was at risk of being taken to court if they did not agree with the ordinance.
“Diversity of thought and the ability to disagree should not be subject to government punishment,” Auman said.
Auman characterized the ordinance as giving up on the ability of the community to overcome its shortcomings without government interference, and urged more time and public discussion before passing it.
Auman said that he has heard people speaking about experiencing discrimination years or decades in the past, but would like to hear about any instances of ongoing discrimination in Tucker.
Auman plans to hold a town hall meeting about the NDO at Tucker City Hall on May 25 at 7 pm. He emphasized that it would not be a city council meeting, but said he hoped that it would be an opportunity for dialogue before the ordinance is ultimately read a second time and voted on.
“We’ll have a second read. I can’t tell you when it’ll be or what form the meeting will take or what the ordinance will look like by the time we get there, but that’s the process. That’s what we’re doing,” Auman said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of one of the clergy members. The story has been updated with the correct information.
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