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DeKalb Board of Commissioners approves nondiscrimination ordinance

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DeKalb Board of Commissioners approves nondiscrimination ordinance

DeKalb County Government Manuel J. Maloof Center in downtown Decatur. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners approved a nondiscrimination ordinance during its meeting on Tuesday, July 11.

In 2021, Commissioners Robert Patrick and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson introduced a nondiscrimination ordinance and public accommodation ordinance.

The ordinance deems it essential to provide reasonable and realistic discrimination protections at the local level and provide measures to discourage those who run a business or offer public accommodations within the county from discriminating, according to a press release. The ordinance provides greater descriptions of the protected classes, which includes adding and updating definitions for gender identity, marital status, parental status and other classes.

“It expands the classes and the characteristics protected from discrimination in DeKalb County and provides consistency in the application of nondiscrimination protections throughout the code of DeKalb County and throughout the unincorporated areas of DeKalb County,” County Attorney Viviane Ernstes said during the July 11 county commission meeting.

The ordinance has two sections, one of which applies to businesses that are open to the public and that are places of public accommodation. The second section of the ordinance prevents discrimination against county employees and applicants.

“The first thing that the ordinance does is it expands the definition of protected classes,” Ernstes said. “It expands protected characteristic to include race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, genetic information, familial status, political affiliation, political opinion, sexual orientation, parental status, gender identity, marital status, and protective hairstyles and any other characteristic protected by federal and state law.”

She added that a protected hairstyle is defined in the county’s code as “a hairstyle necessitated by or resulting from the immutable characteristics of a hair texture associated with race or expression of gender identity, cultural identity, national origin or religious beliefs including, but not limited to, braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists.”

The ordinance also provides a process for filing a complaint with the county if an individual believes they were discriminated against based on any of these characteristics. One option is an informal voluntary meditation process.

The other option in the review process includes a hearing in front of a hearing officer, who would be chosen by the county chief executive officer or the chief operating officer. The hearing officer could dismiss the claim, impose a civil penalty of $500 or recommend that the county consider revoking or suspending a business or alcohol license.

During the meeting, the commissioners praised the passage of the ordinance. Presiding Officer Robert Patrick said he was proud of his colleagues.

“The ordinance talks about classes and groups of people, but those are family members, those are friends, those are our brothers and sisters,” Patrick said. “They’re our people. More often than not, when America comes together and starts talking about how we work together to get things done, we’re a better country, and we do some amazing things together”

Commissioner Cochran-Johnson has said that one cannot legislate morality or decency, but the county can do what’s within its power to acknowledge and protect people.

“I do believe that we are at a critical time in America where we must take a stand when we see racism, when we see the exclusion of individuals, and we must acknowledge that we do not all start from the same place,” she said.

In a press release, Commissioner Ted Terry agreed that it’s a critical time to adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance.

“It is critical that we as leaders do everything within our power to make our county inclusive and welcoming, especially in such
tumultuous times,” Terry said. “To say I am proud of the strides we are taking to achieve this would be an understatement.”

Commissioner Larry Johnson added that the board made history by unanimously approving the NDO.

“This law not only protects our constituents but also showcases the importance of equity for our county’s progress. It’s important to recognize and respect each other’s differences, as a diverse county is a thriving county, and that’s exactly what DeKalb is,” Johnson said in a press release.

A few government and nonprofit officials spoke in support of the ordinance during the meeting. State Rep. Karla Drenner (D – Avondale Estates) said she brought two of her four children to the meeting, so they could see a time when history was made.

Drenner has served in the state Legislature for over 20 years. When she was elected in 2001, Drenner was Georgia and the South’s first openly gay state representative.

“All of you here today can attest fighting for equality is not a singular event for one group,” Drenner said. “It’s a collective action that spans decades of work by thousands of people. Today we are witnessing one of those moments. I know there are many battles ahead, and I draw strength knowing that we are in this together.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the county’s strength is in its diversity. The ordinance was written in partnership with Georgia Equality, which has worked with several Georgia cities, including Tucker, to pass similar ordinances.

“As you’ve heard from the other speakers today, this ordinance is not just about members of the LGBTQ community, it’s about uniting and making a statement for the great diversity of DeKalb County,” Graham said. “It is important to recognize that people of faith are deserving of protection, but those protections need to be weighed against the civil rights of all others as well. This ordinance does this.”

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond also spoke in support of the ordinance and thanked the board of commissioners for its work on the ordinance.

“Injustice anywhere, we have to stand against it,” Thurmond said. “We will not allow discrimination, hate and bigotry to define who we are as a county or as a government.”

The ordinance will go into effect in 180 days to allow the administration to put the staff and procedures in place needed to implement the ordinance.

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