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Fight for anti-discrimination ordinance continues in Holland

This is a local version of a national story that aired on NPR's 'All Things Considered' Saturday.

Last June the city council in Holland voted 5-to-4 against adding sexual orientationand gender identity to its local anti-discrimination laws. Federal and Michigan laws protect residents from discrimination in housing and employment – but not based on a person’s sexuality or gender identity.

I come before you again to ask you to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing anti-discrimination ordinance” Holland Pastor Bill Freeman said during the public comment portion of the Holland City Council meeting last Wednesday, “I know I sound like a broken record.”

Freeman has been pushing Holland to adopting local laws that would protect people from getting fired or kicked out of their homes because they are gay, bisexual or transgender. He first requested the city study adopting the ordinance in the spring of 2010.

Holland is Ready, another grassroots organization that’s supporting the changes, is still meeting regularly. The group’s leader, Reverend Jen Adams, said they are continuing their conversations with city council members. But they no longer have a consistent presence at Holland City Council meetings.

"The question as Holland is Ready sees it is not about supporting or opposing a ballot measure; the question is how do we ensure that we end the discrimination that is happening in Holland,” Adams said. “We're working to educate, change hearts and minds, and identify our supporters."

Tactic of civil disobedience

Freeman faces a maximum $500 fine and up to 90 days in the county jail because he refused to leave Holland City Hall after a council meeting last month. He was taken into custody without incident, charged with trespassing, and released on a $100 bond. He appears in front of a judge Tuesday.

I think the only thing that might get them to change their mind is national attention,” Freeman said, “Not the kind of attention that the City of Holland would like to have when the holidays come up and Tulip Time comes up.” He admitted to city council last week he is looking for publicity for his cause by turning to civil disobedience.

Freeman’s attorney advised him against saying whether he plans to hold another sit-in at Holland City Hall. But he says if he does, this time he won’t be alone.

Getting business owners on board

Pat Eldean owns The Piper Restaurantjust outside Holland City limits. She’s put up a small sign in front of her restaurant showing her support for the effort. “I think we lose business for various reasons and if I did, so be it,” Eldean said, “This is how I believe. This is my core value, is equality.”

The Piper Restaurant even hosted a fundraising gala last month for a relatively new organization in this fight. The group is known as “Until Love is Equal”.Members have been present at every city council meeting since the vote to push city council members to change their vote.

But Until Love is Equal stopped coming to Holland City Council in the beginning of October after a few city council members told the group they weren’t going to reconsider their votes.

So the group is refreshing their push to compile a list of businesses, like The Piper Restaurant, that support the anti-discrimination law. Some of Holland’s top employers, like furniture makers Hayworth and Herman Miller, have expressed support for the ordinance change. They’re also brainstorming new ways to get their message out.

Regional implications?

Erin Wilson founded “Until Love is Equal” June 16th, the day after Holland City Council's vote. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three kids. He said there are economic concerns like attracting and retaining young people that stem from Holland City Council’s no vote. He says Holland’s vote reflects badly on the region as a whole.

“We’ve got an image problem,” Wilson said about West Michigan. “It traces back to a very small number of people who’ve got loud voices, who are clouding and murking up the water for the rest of us and that’s why we’re here.”

Wilson points out that the City of Grand Rapids, 30 miles east of Holland, passed the same anti-discrimination laws back in 1994. That’s the same year as San Francisco. Plus Saugatuck, Douglas and Kalamazoo, all cities less than an hour away from Holland, have passed these rules too.

Who should decide?

A number of the council members who voted against the changes back in June explain the vote by saying the controversial decision shouldn't rest with the council.

"We can do that with resurfacing, or bridges, but this is really a social issue," said council member Nancy DeBoer, who voted no. "It really involves differences in faith, business ownership, property ownership ... and the social norms."

In the debates leading up to the vote, DeBoer said, she heard compelling, passionate stories and perspectives she would have never otherwise heard.

"This has been a very hard journey for me," she said. "The last thing I want to see in a community that I love is a community that fights with itself."

Several Holland business owners have said they don't want to hire someone who is gay or transgender, much the same as they wouldn't want to hire someone covered with tattoos.

"The fact of the matter is, as a land owner, as a business owner, you also have rights," said Polly Cohen, a landlord in Holland. "I have the right to say, 'I don't want a smoker living in my duplex.'"

Of course I’m not for discrimination,” Councilman Brian Burch stressed while, again, explaining his “no” vote. “I’ve always thought that this conversation belonged outside of a council chamber,” Burch said. He said passing the ordinance wouldn’t have done anything to open people’s minds about discrimination. “The only tactics that are really going to help is if they’re going to somehow build a conversation with people,” Burch said.  He would like to see the ordinance change go to a vote of the people living in Holland.

Other city council members noted many surrounding communities who also do not have such laws. They said the issue would be better addressed at the state level.

Despite being disappointed that city council is not interested it changing the vote, there is still a lot of energy around the cause. “It’s phenomenal place to be that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s on me as a gay person in the community,” Tommy Allen of Until Love is Equal said, “there are other people who see this as wrong and step up.”

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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