Although a number of western Kentucky cities have recently taken up the issue of explicit protections for LGBTQ individuals this year, Owensboro's elected leaders say they've not seen any evidence that would deem a local fairness ordinance necessary.
Most city officials say such protections aren't needed, because that kind of discrimination doesn't appear to be happening in the city.
The Bowling Green City Commission narrowly defeated an ordinance earlier this month that would have made discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender choice against the law, since no such protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer individuals are currently on the books in Kentucky.
The city of Henderson, meanwhile, is amid the process of holding a series of town halls and city work sessions to consider a similar proposed piece of legislation, turning back the clock on a fairness ordinance it had passed and repealed almost 20 years ago.
Just this week, in fact, the city of Paducah amended its own fairness ordinance that first passed last year in order to ensure compliance with existing religious liberty protections.
Kentucky Fairness Director Chris Hartman said those recent actions show fairness is on the minds of western Kentuckians.
"If folks are ready for a new, revitalized movement in Owensboro, that maybe is also focused on endorsing in local elections and ensuring that pro-fairness candidates are elected, that’s something that we would be very happy to have the conversation about," he said on Thursday. "It just hasn’t felt like there is a great opportunity there in Owensboro of late, but there is an opportunity for fairness that always exists in the background; it just takes someone willing to take it."
State and federal civil rights legislation provides protection from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, age (over 40), sex, disability and familial status. Because LGBTQ people aren't covered under those same protections, they can still be legally fired from a job, denied an apartment or kicked out of a restaurant.
Within Kentucky, 10 cities have updated their local civil rights laws by passing fairness ordinances, including Louisville (1999), Lexington (1999), Covington (2003), Vicco (2013), Frankfort (2013), Morehead (2013), Danville (2014), Midway (2015), Paducah (2018) and Maysville (2018).
In 2014, the Owensboro City Commission was considering a fairness ordinance but tabled the discussion in late August of that year.
The Owensboro Human Relations Commission was an early advocate for a fairness ordinance in Owensboro five years ago, and Executive Director Kaitlin Nonweiler said the organization still remains committed to advocating on behalf of that cause. But attention in the community, she said, has been focused on landlord-tenant issues lately, and she said she wants to focus her energy on one cause at a time.
"Recently, I’ve had several people come to me who have asked about the fairness ordinance, though," she said. "They’ve said they are interested in advocating for it. So, we’re slowly building our network of people who are interested in fighting for trying to do a fairness ordinance, but it just takes time to get a strategy together."
Since July 2017, the human relations commission has recorded six instances of discrimination in Owensboro on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identify, according to records obtained by the Messenger-Inquirer.
Nonweiler said cases of LGBTQ discrimination often go unreported, however, because they are not legally discrimination at all where no such laws or protections are in place.
"If it wasn’t against the law to key someone’s car or damage their vehicle, then why would victims report instances of it happening, especially if there would be nothing that could be done about it?" she said.
That said, the commission has a policy in place to record instances of abuse or discrimination when they occur, and staff will still forward intake forms on to the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, where case attorneys have sought criminal or civil relief based on loopholes in the law or instances of discrimination based on protected classes state and local governments have already recognized.
In 2016, OHRC partnered with an Owensboro campaign of LGBTQ advocates who recorded instances of discrimination via written letters. More than 360 Owensboro residents wrote in or signed on to a petition stating that they had been victimized.
All four of Owensboro's city commissioners, who were reached by phone Thursday said they have not yet seen enough strong evidence to indicate that LGBTQ discrimination exists.
Commissioner Larry Conder said he strongly advocates for those kinds of protections if they're needed, but he wants to hang his hat on empirical evidence well before he ever considers an ordinance.
"I've always believed that people shouldn’t be discriminated against," he said. "I’m not going to tell people who they can sell cupcakes to, but, in regards to employment and housing, that form of discrimination should be done away with. But I need to know it exists before we pass a law."
Mayor Pro Tem Larry Maglinger agreed. He said he would only consider voting for a fairness ordinance "depending on how that ordinance reads, and if it was fair for everybody, not just a few." He, too, cited few recorded instances of discrimination in weekly OHRC reports.
Commissioner Jeff Sanford said he believes that, in general, Owensboro is a welcoming and accepting community, and he said he found it hard to believe that such instances of discrimination existed in the community at all. He said it is also important to protect religious liberties, however, and he complained about governments getting involved in personal issues like that at all.
In 2014, Commissioner Pam Smith-Wright was at first a vocal advocate for fairness protections, but now she said it is important to see the evidence of discrimination before the commission ever considers a vote.
As a black woman, she said she has experienced systemic discrimination herself. She regularly advocates on behalf of civil liberties, but she does not want to waste the government's time with ordinances that don't meet any needs.
"Are we creating an ordinance for something just because everybody else is doing it, or are we creating an ordinance because we have a bad problem that we are trying to fix?" she said.
Finally, Mayor Tom Watson said he believes a fairness ordinance should be something better left up to the county. If there are real problems of discrimination in the area, they don't stop at the city's boundary, so the county should take the lead on any such fairness protections, he said.
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @austinrramsey