Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Tonight in American Fork
After a long hearing in which more than 20 people spoke, the American Fork City Council tabled its proposed Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Ordinances. Here's the mostly-untold story of how and why, plus my statement from the hearing.
Nearly every seat in American Fork's historic City Hall was filled tonight for a hearing on proposed Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Ordinances, which I discussed in my previous post, and which have received considerable attention in the Utah media. These hearings are routinely scheduled to take ten minutes or so before regular city council meetings, but it was planned in this case to extend the hearing and start the council meeting late.
The hearing lasted an hour. More than 20 people spoke, including me (see below). Most were American Fork residents, and there seemed to be plenty of those on each side of the issue, plus one or two I couldn't pin down. Some gave evidence of having read the proposed ordinances and being generally aware of constitutional law and federal anti-discrimination regulations. Some conspicuously did not.
Some left after the hearing; others stayed for the agenda item in the meeting that followed. MFCC had told me earlier in the day what was likely to happen, but I was very interested to hear who would say what along the way.
Here's more of what happened than is generally known. For quite a while, in response to constituents who have approached them, two members of the American Fork City Council have wanted the council to consider ordinances modeled after Salt Lake City's -- the methods and principles of which were publicly endorsed by the LDS Church. But there are five votes on the city council; a third would be needed to pass the ordinances, or even to get them on the agenda.
Recently, a third vote presented itself. For a while it appeared that a fourth vote was likely and a fifth possible, if a few concerns (some of which I thought reasonable) were resolved.
Then the wheels came off. Within a day or two of the scheduled vote, that third vote switched sides, citing concerns from his own research about how a certain aspect of the ordinances related to businesses might be implemented. The likely fourth vote decided there should be more public discussion, in search of a better public consensus. The possible fifth vote didn't materialize.
Therefore, had there been a vote tonight, the ordinances would have been defeated, three votes to two. The two scrambled to craft a less damaging outcome, and the three agreed: They would go ahead with the hearing, then table the ordinances, avoiding a vote for a while. Notably, the motion to table came from an outspoken supporter. That's a clue to what really happened. It was a strategic retreat, not a surrender, and not a cop-out. The goal is still to pass the ordinances, perhaps with some minor amendments.
It's difficult to predict the immediate future. Three members of the council were attending their last meeting tonight and will be replaced by new city councilors in January. It remains to be seen whether these ordinances will have more support from the new council, especially in the early part of their terms. Even if the new members are initially reluctant to support such ordinances, over time the accumulated experience of governing and of trying to represent all of American Fork's people may adjust their views somewhat.
The issue is not dead or abandoned in American Fork, just delayed.
Can Littering Be a Hate Crime?
While the meeting was in session, someone littered many windshields in the parking areas with an anonymous flier quoting the Old Testament, to the effect that homosexual activity should be punishable by death. Notably, no one with the courage to stand up and speak in the hearing offered such barbaric remarks there.
Tell me again that discrimination can't happen here . . .
My Statement at the Hearing
Give or take a word or two here and there, here is what I said at the hearing. Note that the members of the city council, not the rest of the people in the room, were my audience. They were well versed in the ordinances, and I had already discussed other aspects of the proposals with them in other settings.
My name is David Rodeback. I live in American Fork. [Editorial note: Your statement carries more weight in these settings if you live in the jurisdiction, so it's always a good thing to mention.]
Mayor Hadfield and members of the Council, thank you for your hard work and for your serious approach to your duties. I particularly express my gratitude to and my admiration for those of you who have courageously, persistently, and intelligently advanced the proposed Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Ordinances.
I want to focus for a couple of minutes on the essential issues here.
In Utah County we are at the intersection of two great forces which push us in the direction of religious freedom. One force is religious; the other is civic or political.
As you well know, most of the population here belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LDS theology is not just uncommonly friendly to moral agency and its political twin, religious freedom. It is built upon these doctrines so completely that the entire theology would collapse if they were removed.
Meanwhile, among major nations, the United States of America has no peer in the history of the world, in the cause of protecting and advancing religious freedom, or in our sacrifices for it at home and abroad. We even go to great lengths to protect the religious freedom of our enemies.
Given these two forces and their intersection here, you would think that, in religious terms at least, this would be the most tolerant place on earth. Yet somehow there is nothing to prevent me, if I were an employer in American Fork, from firing you tomorrow, if I find out that you're gay. There is no law to prevent me, if I were a landlord, from evicting you, if I find out that you're gay. In fact, you don't actually have to be gay for me to do those things to you with impunity. I just have to think you're gay, based on whatever stereotypes I find convenient at the moment.
A few, but not nearly all, of those who oppose these ordinances claim that such firings and evictions in the name of religion would be a proper exercise of religious freedom. I think a better term would be tyranny. The fact that this religious tyranny is justified in the name of religious freedom seems particularly dangerous.
I have argued elsewhere that religious freedom is the most crucial of the basic human freedoms. I jealously guard my own, but I understand that it cannot be absolute. Ideally, it is balanced as equally and as reasonably as possible against your religious freedom and everyone else's, and against other essential rights and freedoms.
We necessarily both limit and protect religious freedom by refusing to impose my religious principles and choices on you, and yours on me. We limit religious freedom in other ways, by rejecting it as a defense of human sacrifice; of drug use in most cases; and of spouse abuse, child abuse, and other crimes. We draw the bounds of religious freedom far short of crusades and holy wars, even if some belief systems consider these atrocities to be a religious duty.
Similarly, we must weigh an employer's or landlord's supposed right not to have people around who don't live his religion against what I submit are more important rights: not to fear or actually experience the loss of a job or a home for failing (in reality or appearance) to conform to someone else's religion.
I am aware of several reasons which might justify a vote of conscience against these ordinances. The reasons for a vote matter a great deal to the person casting the vote, but they have little effect on the public consequences of that vote.
Today, it is completely legal for people to lose their jobs and their homes in American Fork, because they are known or suspected to be living a lifestyle which is lawful, but which offends someone else's religious principles.
Tomorrow, next year, and for the foreseeable future, this religious oppression may still be completely legal here. Or, depending on your action tonight, it may no longer be legal. Your reasons, however honorable, will not determine this; only your vote will.
This is a conspicuous test of American Fork's commitment to the religious freedom of all who live or work here.
Thank you again.
Copyright 2011 by David Rodeback.