BUCKHANNON – Following three hours of debate and public comment, Buckhannon City Council on Thursday voted down an ordinance that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
By a narrow margin of 4-3, council defeated Ordinance 434, the City of Buckhannon’s non-discrimination ordinance. The proposed law’s primary purpose was to assert an individual’s right not to be discriminated against based on sexuality and gender identity in public accommodations.
The ordinance also included protections from discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, marital status, familial status and veteran status, according to a copy of the document distributed in media packets.
The proposed law failed 4-3 on first reading when councilman David Thomas, councilwoman Pam Cuppari, councilman Robbie Skinner and city recorder Colin Reger said they couldn’t support the measure.
Councilman CJ Rylands, councilwoman Mary Albaugh and mayor David McCauley voted in favor of the proposed ordinance.
Skinner said he had a prepared statement to read.
“This is a no-win situation, and it’s a proposal that should have never been placed on the agenda for consideration,” Skinner said. He emphasized that his opposition to the ordinance did not amount to condoning discrimination.
“I in no way, shape or form support any act of discrimination toward any member of the human race, period,” he said. “I do, however, fundamentally disagree with a municipal governing body passing social legislation onto its citizens and businesses. That is wrong.”
Skinner went on to address arguments that passing the ordinance would lead to an uptick in new people and businesses moving into the area.
“Sure, that may be true, but it won’t be in the top 10 reasons as to why someone would consider moving to or moving their business to Buckhannon or moving to any city, for that matter,” he said.
Skinner said having a quality school system, stellar hospital facility, business-friendly tax structure, attractive real estate market, low crime rate and solid infrastructure would more likely factor into a person or business’ decision to relocate to Buckhannon.
“I believe change happens when we lead by example and by our actions, not by the words on paper,” he added. “We do not need an ordinance to tell us to be kind, to be heartfelt, to be compassionate, to be understanding, to be loving or to be understanding.”
Skinner said he believed that if passed, Ordinance 434 would undermine “recent strides” the community had taken in its efforts to work together.
“Unfortunately, just the proposal of this ordinance clearly by the room … has already parted the seas, and for that, I am truly sad because it didn’t need to happen,” he said, noting the packed council chambers. “I can’t support an ordinance that I see as a mechanism to tear us apart … I want to be a part of things that bring us together.”
Reger said prior to Thursday night’s vote, he’d asked many “hard questions” of city officials and the executive director of Fairness West Virginia, Andrew Schneider, who suggested the city adopt an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance in late October 2018. According to its website, Fairness West Virginia is the statewide civil rights advocacy organization that lobbies for fair treatment and civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians.
Reger said although he’s supported many initiatives McCauley has promoted, he couldn’t support the passage of the nondiscrimination ordinance.
“Mayor McCauley has said on multiple occasions – and he will probably say tonight – that he views human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity to be on par with race,” Reger said. “If that is your viewpoint, then this thing needs to pass. However, this council does not have the right to impose that understanding of the apparent equality of human sexuality and race upon the vast majority of the residents of this city.”
Reger also took issue with that fact that although there were exemptions for churches and “religious corporations” in the ordinance, the law didn’t provide any exemptions for individual Christians “who may or may not agree with these understandings,” he said.
Thomas said although he has friends who are members of the LGBTQ community – and had even intervened in a fight in his college dormitory to come to the aid of a gay man – he didn’t believe nondiscrimination could be legislated.
“We need to be transparent. I don’t think you can put something on paper and that’s how you’re going to be friendly and open and so forth,” he said. “You do it by your actions, by what you do for the community.”
In addition, Thomas remarked that he wasn’t pleased with “the process” surrounding the ordinance’s development.
“I don’t like this process that we did,” he said. “The ordinance was not finalized until late yesterday, that’s my understanding. I read it for the first time today. Based on what I read today, I will vote against it.”
Cuppari, too, prefaced her opposition to the ordinance with an assurance that she did not condone discrimination.
“I have friends and relatives in the LGBTQ community,” she said. “I’m not against anybody. My problem is, I’ve been in business for years, and I feel as a taxpayer and a businessperson, I should have the right to not perform a service for a person because … I see a lot of stuff with people coming in and giving me really big problems, and I feel that I should have that right to turn them away or say no. And I also believe this is going to open up a can of worms if we pass this.”
However, Albaugh, Rylands and McCauley voted in favor of the measure.
Albaugh said after much soul-searching, she was inclined to support the ordinance.
“I’m not the person to judge anybody – none of you are,” she said. “We’re here to run a city the best way we can possible, and to do that we have to be more open, we have to be more caring … we have to welcome to people to come in within our community. That’s how we grow. I believe that what we’re doing here is right.”
McCauley said he “100 percent” supported the proposed law, noting a sizable LGBTQ community in the student body of West Virginia Wesleyan College as well as LGBTQ people who either live or conduct business in corporate limits.
The mayor also said he wanted to rebut the idea that the non-discrimination ordinance originated as his idea.
“Mr. Skinner,” the mayor said, “I’m not in the same position as Dave Thomas. I take offense to your comments and suggestions that we have created this divisive thing. First off, this was not my initiative to create this. There were members of our community, primarily people of alternative orientations, who sought out the assistance of Fairness West Virginia.
“They asked for this matter to be considered,” he continued. “It has nothing to do with creating an unnecessary divisive thing. All we’re doing with this ordinance is attempting to extend the protections to people of other orientations. They would enjoy the same rights as people of color, ethnicity, age, handicap, religion, that’s all that this ordinance is intended to do is level the playing field to make it equally inviting for everyone to live here.”
Rylands said city officials needed to align their actions with their intentions.
“If our intention is to be a safe, affordable, welcoming community where a point is made to include everyone that wants to participate, then we have to behave in line with those intentions,” he said.
Rylands went on to observe that Upshur County was calculated as 97.6 percent Caucasian in the last Census.
“If you look around the country, and you find places that are following a path of ascension, there’s a much greater element of diversity,” Rylands said, “and I think it’s important that people of different persuasions and orientations feel that they’re welcome in our community, and I support this.”
Thursday’s meeting was standing-room only, with multiple attendees being asked to step into the hallway outside council chambers or outside in order to comply with state fire code.
To view the Jan. 3, 2019 meeting in its entirety, please click here.