Kirksville City Council votes 3-2 against Human Rights Ordinance

A Missouri city council shut down efforts to extend discrimination protection to potentially at-risk minority groups.

After more than an hour of heated deliberations, the Kirksville, Mo. City Council made its position clear: not all will be fully protected from discrimination under local law.

That’s because the council last week struck down the proposed ordinance in a 3-2 vote. If passed, the ordinance would have established a nine-member, all-volunteer human rights commission and extended complete legal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As it stands, Kirksville residents in those categories are only protected from housing discrimination — the ordinance would have additionally safeguarded individuals in cases of employment and public accommodation.

The ordinance’s failure to pass came as a surprise to many. Less than a week before the final vote, Councilman Robert Russell had affirmed strong support for the ordinance’s passage, likening LGBTQ discrimination to that faced by African-Americans prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Yet during the voting process, Russell had a change of heart for what he said were religious reasons. “This goes beyond what I was talking about. This goes against all religious belief,” he told the crowd gathered after the vote. “As a Christian, just read your Bible.”

Joining Russell in voting against the ordinance were Mayor Richard Detweiler and Councilman Roger Edge, who opposed it on financial grounds. The ordinance, Detweiler said, could make Kirksville less attractive to potential businesses for fear of being fined or sued — violators would have been fined up to $500 and/or sentenced to a maximum of 90 days in the city jail. Detweiler was also reluctant to extend the reach of local government.

That argument, however, didn’t sit well with Cole Woodcox, vice-chair of the Kirksville Historic Preservation Commission. Two days after the vote, Woodcox, who is openly gay, resigned from the commission in an open letter to its chairman.

“Because the Council is unwilling to include me, a gay man, as a full member of the Kirksville community,” Woodcox wrote, “I cannot ethically continue to serve as an official volunteer on a commission that works on the city's behalf.”

Backlash also came from Missourians for Equality, a grassroots political action committee that first presented the ordinance to Detweiler and the council months ago. Missourians for Equality Executive Director Aaron Malin expressed his distaste for the vote.

“It was disappointing and it was also surprising,” Malin said. “But it came on the heels of a week of LGBTQ progress.”

What Kirksville’s council shot down, Malin’s organization hopes to bring to the state level as a ballot initiative in next year’s election, he said.

Columbia does not have a similar controversy surrounding a discrimination law.

The city for years held sexual orientation as a protected distinction, and in 2011 passed an ordinance, on which the Kirksville proposal was based, which extended that protection to cases of gender identity.

Negar Rezvani, an immigration attorney and the city’s former Human Rights Specialist, pointed out that while Columbia’s educated population is generally less likely to discriminate, she still spent a third of her time seeing to cases of alleged discrimination.

Much of her remaining time, she said, was spent educating the public on the existing discrimination policies.

“Because gender identity is such a new area, a lot of people don’t quite understand it,” Rezvani said. “We’d tell them, ‘You don’t have to agree with it, but you can’t discriminate against it.’”

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