Roughly 300 community members in support of a countywide Fairness Ordinance crammed the court chambers and hallway of the Daviess County Courthouse for Thursday's Daviess Fiscal Court meeting.
A Fairness Ordinance, if approved, would add gender identification and sexual orientation to existing county regulations barring discrimination in housing and employment. To date, an ordinance has not been drafted for court consideration.
At about 4:15 p.m., the seats within the chamber were nearly full and the hallway was quickly filling up. After the seats were filled, about 180 people huddled against the walls of the hallway, with phones out, watching the proceedings and awaiting the testimony of LGBTQ community member Tyler Shookman during the public comments portion of the meeting.
"At a very young age, I knew that I was different," Shookman said. "I struggled with who I was truly was because of my Christian faith. I remember as a kid sitting in church and listening to my pastor say, 'Homosexuals are going to burn in hell for eternity.' I was absolutely crushed. I was scared, alone and had no one to talk to about what I was going through in fear of being disowned. I would pray myself to sleep and was at the point in my young life where I contemplated suicide."
Ultimately, his best friend's father, who was told by his pastor that getting married and having kids would, "take away his homosexual feelings," witnessed to Shookman and helped him find the strength to understand that his feelings were "OK" and that God "loved him unconditionally."
Shookman ended his testimony by highlighting his love for Owensboro and his disappointment in local elected officials.
"Our city has come so far, but not quite far enough," he said. "Unfortunately you have refused to protect all Daviess County residents from discrimination. This is an utter disappointment to all of us and a complete failure of our elected officials. I don't want the city I love to be known as a city of hate and discrimination. The future of Owensboro is much brighter than the reality is right now. I pray that God will open your hearts and minds. It is time to do the right thing."
Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly opened the floor for county commissioners Charlie Castlen, Mike Koger and George Wathen to comment on the night's proceedings. Wathen, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of an ordinance, read a prepared statement laying out many of his past concerns revolving around religious freedoms, business protections, his belief in the inability for a governing body to "legislate fairness" and his concerns passing an unenforceable law with many unforeseen consequences protecting a "fluid community" with many various gender specifications.
Ultimately, Wathen called on Mattingly to do one of two things -- declare the ordinance dead on arrival or put the ordinance up for a vote.
"Decisions will be made for the wrong reasons all because of an ordinance," he said. "I firmly believe that we need to end this discussion and put it to rest so that our citizens can move on. To do anything else would not be prudent. I firmly believe that it is dead on arrival. We have to have three votes before it passes. There are not three votes.
"... Put the ordinance up for a vote. Quit dragging our feet, put one up there and let's get it over with. If we are going to vote on one, lets vote on one, if we're not, let's declare it gone. To be in limbo is painful for everybody. Either way, we need to stop the tension and disagreement."
Mattingly, before describing to the crowd the outpouring of correspondence that he has received from community members in support of the ordinance, did not acquiesce to either of Wathen's requests.
"Commissioner," he said, "I hear your call, since it is in my purview to put things on the agenda and continue to allow discussion, I am not going to do what you ask. Secondly, there are a lot of things that you have brought up that I agree with and many things that I disagree with. I think if we avoided all of the things that are divisive in this community that we would still have segregation, and I believe women would not be voting if we didn't discuss these issues that we disagree on. Discussion is what brings people together and we need to be looking at commonality."
Thursday's showing of those in support of an ordinance appeared to be an answer from proponents to the swell of ordinance opposition led by Southside Fellowship Church Pastor John Fowler that filled the chamber during the Nov. 7 court meeting.
Following court, roughly 120 pro-ordinance community members met at the Taylor Lecture Hall in Brescia University's Roy and Victoria Duffy Roberts Center for the Sciences to hold a monthly Owensboro Fairness Campaign meeting. The purpose of the meeting was a panel discussion meant to inform the community, both for and against, about an ordinance through a question-and-answer discussion. No one from the opposition, including Fowler, who was scheduled to be a panelist, joined the discussion.
For proponents of the ordinance, tonight's community show of support was a victory, said Deanna Smith, Owensboro Fairness Campaign chairperson.
"I know many of the people that were there personally and many of them were the parents of gay kids or trans kids," she said. "I feel excellent. I actually listened in on what George Wathen had to say, and I was proud of everyone for keeping their cool through it. But, Al Mattingly really beat it into the dirt. If the leadership continues to refuse to change their mind, then we will just have to elect new leadership."
Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, email@example.com