City considers non-discrimination ordinance to counter Mississippi law

Published 8:31 am Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The City of Natchez officials are considering adopting a non-discrimination ordinance that encompasses the LGBTQ community.

Similar ordinances have been adopted by several municipalities throughout the state, including Jackson, Clarksdale and Magnolia.

Click here for a pdf of the city’s proposed non-discrimination ordinance.

The stated purpose of the ordinance is to “safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to be free from all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on real or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status or veteran status.”

The non-discrimination ordinances have been adopted after the state passed a Freedom of Religion Law, HB 1523 in 2016, allowing government organizations the right to refuse services, based on religious objections, such as issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, counseling or shelter to LGBTQ people.

Certain religious groups and individuals in Natchez have expressed concern that the non-discrimination ordinance being considered by the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen could infringe on their constitutional rights.

The ordinance was taken under consideration by members of the Natchez Board of Aldermen during a meeting last month and has since been deferred by board members for further consideration.

“The board wanted to read over it and review it,” Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said. “The Human Rights Campaign has gone through many cities throughout the state of Mississippi. Jackson has adopted the ordinance, the City of Clarksdale has adopted the ordinance and the City of Magnolia has adopted the ordinance and there are other cities looking at it as well.”

The Human Rights Campaign is the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization and has backed the ordinance with the stated purpose of protecting citizens from discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment in response to HB1523.

Roy King III, a Natchez resident and business owner, said he feels the proposed ordinance is unnecessary and could be unconstitutional. King also takes exception to the city’s use of taxpayer funds to assist in promoting events, specifically the city’s contribution of $1,000 to promote an upcoming fundraiser developed by LGBTQ activists.

The ordinance

A draft of the proposed non-discrimination ordinance supplied by City Attorney Robert Latham could allow the city to enforce fines to up to $1,000 for discriminatory practices or hate crimes and protects the right of individuals to obtain employment and employee benefits, public accommodations or amusements and housing without discrimination.

A section of the drafted ordinance does excuse religious corporations, associations or societies that employ individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with religious activities.

To enforce it, the ordinance specifies that the city shall investigate complaints of alleged violations and hold municipal court hearings. If a person is deemed a violator, they could receive a fine of $500 for the first offense, $750 for the second and $1,000 for the third subsequent offense.

Once published, the ordinance would become effective after 30 days, Grennell said, adding the Board of Aldermen have taken the ordinance under advisement and have not determined a date for a public hearing on the matter.

Opposition

King said he feels the ordinance is vaguely written and has the potential to prevent religious groups from engaging in verbal confrontations about their beliefs.

“My concern is that it’s going to limit free speech,” King said. “Not all speech that you don’t agree with is hate speech, and even hate speech is protected under the constitution. Unless the speech encourages violence of some type, it’s legal speech. … Who is going to interpret what is unlawful or hate speech if this ordinance goes in that direction? … I don’t want to see the City of Natchez create an ordinance that isn’t constitutionally sound.”

Promotional funding

Also in prior budget sessions, city officials discussed an expenditure of approximately $1,000 to be used to fund promotional efforts for a public fundraiser organized by an LGBTQ activist group called “Y’all Means All — Natchez.”

Local organizer of the event Troy Bickford said the event is still in early planning but is expected to take place Oct. 26 at an undisclosed venue.

“We’re not allowed to disclose anything until the contracts are finalized,” Bickford said. “We’ve formed a non-profit made up of LGBT individuals and supporters, and we will be fundraising for other non-profits here in town.”

Grennell said the city’s contribution came out of a community promotional account that is also used for other widespread contributions that the city has made with the intent to promote events that could generate publicity for the city.

The money in the account is supplied out of the city’s general fund, Grennell said, and is being used to support the promotion of the upcoming LGBTQ event. Grennell said support of the LGBTQ event is similar to support the city has provided for other events, including the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, the Juneteenth festival, the Minorville Jubilee, the Natchez Euro Fest car show and Bruce Video Productions — the business that tapes city meetings.

King said he believes comparing an LGBTQ event to other activities — the balloon race for instance — was an unequal comparison.

“Everyone — regardless of their religious affiliation or personal beliefs — may enjoy seeing the balloons, riding the rides, buying refreshments and spending money in whatever way they want to,” King said.

King said his views are from his Christian perspective and that he does not approve of LGBTQ relationships but believes it is within an individual’s rights to support it.

King said, however, he does not believe a government entity should exercise that practice.

“If somebody wants to be gay, I don’t think that is biblically correct but that is their choice, and I’m not going to take away from that,” King said. “But for a city entity or government to endorse a homosexual lifestyle — taking taxpayer funds and committing those to endorse a homosexual agenda — I believe, is wrong.

“We are borrowing funds to make budget now. It’s not like there is a surplus. We’re paying interest on this money that we’re giving away. … If it’s a private event, the city shouldn’t be co-funding any of it.”

In response, Grennell said the city’s promotion of certain activities may not always be accepted by every citizen in Natchez, but even the previous administration supported it.

“The Natchez Euro Fest that took place this past weekend … brought people here to this city,” Grennell said. “The city of Natchez provided $2,500 to help get that promoted and enhance that event. … There may be people who don’t believe in cars. … There is a resolution adopted by a previous administration saying that the city is open for business and they welcome everyone. …

“My position, as the mayor of this city, is that all groups of people are welcome to the city of Natchez and are welcome to the events held in the city of Natchez. It doesn’t matter what their ethnicity, social or economic status or religious group is. They are all welcome.”