With a new revision to Ann Arbor’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance, the City Council is aiming to extend legal protections to a broader spectrum of the city’s residents.
The Council approved a revamped ordinance Monday that includes provisions for gender expression and identity, survivors of domestic violence, political beliefs, genetic information, arrest record and familial status.
Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) applauded the city’s Human Rights Commission for their commitment to improving the existing ordinance.
“It has been an example of a commission doing right and doing good, so thank you,” Taylor said at Monday’s meeting. “These changes, I believe, reflect Ann Arbor’s values of openness and tolerance and will constitute a great step forward for us.”
Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1), the Council’s liaison on the city’s Human Rights Commission, said the commission was motivated to revise the existing ordinance because of a technical flaw.
The city’s original Non-Discrimination Ordinance was passed in 1972 and later became one of the first in the state to include protections for sexual orientation and gender expression.
The original ordinance also provided for a city director of human rights to oversee human rights investigations, but such a position doesn’t currently exist. The commission wanted to clarify the language so future investigations can be managed more efficiently. The new ordinance states that the Human Rights Commission is responsible for overseeing these investigations.
Ann Arbor’s ordinance is now more comprehensive than similar legislation in Berkeley, Calif., Boulder, Colo. and Austin, Texas. The ordinances in these college towns afford protections for race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age and ancestry. However, they do not include provisions for survivors of domestic violence, members of the military, an individual’s political beliefs or arrest record, and do not differentiate between gender identity and gender expression.
During the public hearing at Monday’s meeting, local organizations voiced their support for the new ordinance. A representative from SafeHouse, a group that provides support for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, was among those in attendance.
Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse, said she was thrilled with the new ordinance. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking are often dismissed from jobs, restaurants and businesses because of their attacker’s behavior, Niess-May said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
The wider impact of the ordinance is also important to the organization, which works closely with the local LGBTQ community.
“It’s not just about one sliver of society, it’s about its entirety,” Niess-May said.
Kailasapathy said Ann Arbor is hoping to set an example for the state of Michigan through the revised ordinance. The state’s anti-discrimination legislation, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, does not include protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. However, it was amended in 2009 to increase protections for pregnant employees.
State Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) acknowledged the state’s shortcomings in a statement read by Taylor at Monday’s meeting.
“I would love to stand before you today and say that a comprehensive local ordinance is unnecessary because the state has included all persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender expression or identity under the protection afforded by the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Zemke wrote. “That would be the right thing to do for all Michiganders, however, that is not yet the case.”
Political beliefs are another protection many would like to see added to state legislation. In an interview with the Daily, Michael Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, said an Ann Arbor doctor was fired a few years ago because she was an activist for Palestinian rights. Steinberg said he hopes state lawmakers will realize the importance of protecting people of all political views.
“Ann Arbor is not alone; several states have political beliefs protected in their civil rights laws — California, Colorado, Connecticut, South Dakota and Louisiana, just to name a few,” Steinberg said. “It isn’t radical or out of the ordinary.”
He added that the ordinance is especially relevant to Ann Arbor. Because the town is home to one of the nation’s preeminent universities, the right to freely exchange ideas is important.
William Hampton, president of the Ann Arbor chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, praised the Council for the work they did to improve the ordinance and noted Ann Arbor’s longstanding tradition of social progress.
“It showed a lot of courage to have a human rights ordinance in the 1970s, and we did,” he said.
However, Hampton added that without enforcement, the new ordinance will be meaningless. He hopes that if it is enforced it will encourage community members to value and celebrate diversity.