After an overwhelming number of complaints from the religious community, Beckley Common Council chose not to vote on a Human Rights Commission ordinance amendment that would include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

Councilman Ron Booker mentioned the request at council’s Oct. 28 meeting, and several other council members said they were in favor of the amendment.

However, after an outcry from a number of local churches, the item was never placed on Common Council’s agenda.

The Beckley Human Rights Commission was created by Common Council to “encourage and endeavor to bring about mutual understanding and respect,” and “to eliminate all discrimination in employment places of public accommodations and in the sale, purchase, lease, rental or financing of housing and other rental property.”

Robert Baker, chair of the Beckley Human Rights Commission, came to Tuesday’s meeting discuss the issue with council members.

He said according to the 2010 Census, there are over 100 gay or lesbian couples in Raleigh County, and 540 individuals in Beckley who identify as gay or lesbian, which he said accounts for 3 percent of the City of Beckley’s population.

“There’s a significant number of people involved in this who would be covered in an ordinance if we were to make that change.”

He said a number of other West Virginia cities, including Charleston, Huntington and Morgantown have adopted the new sexual orientation and gender identity amendments into their ordinances.

“For me, this is a civil rights issue,” Baker said. “Just like black or white, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.”

He said less than 50 years ago, Christian churches would not allow blacks and whites to marry, and only 155 years ago, slavery was still legal.

“Those same far-right Christian churches are now saying homosexuals, gays and lesbians, do not deserve equal rights.”

Baker strongly urged council to consider the amendment again.

A local attorney, Robert Dunlap, also came to the council meeting to speak about the issue. He noted that the cities and towns that have passed the similar ordinances are college-based, educated areas.

“I don’t want us to be perceived as an uneducated board.”

He said he believes some of the religious opposition to the ordinance may have stemmed from ignorance or misinformation.

The amendment, if passed, would not require churches to marry same-sex couples, nor would it restrict sermon topics at churches.

“It’s asinine and fear-mongering,” Dunlap said. “We’re better than that.”

A heterosexual woman recently hired him to represent her, claiming, he said, that she was fired for being perceived as a lesbian.

“We’re on the wrong side of history if we don’t take a look at what this ordinance would do.”

He reiterated the ordinance protects employees, renters and potential homeowners from discrimination.

For example, if an apartment complex owner knew he had homosexual tenants, he could not evict them based solely on their sexual orientation.

He also noted that he believes the number of homosexuals in the state is far higher than the numbers in the last Census, simply because many people are unwilling to open themselves up to additional scrutiny.

Mayor Bill O’Brien said he anticipates this topic being brought up in the upcoming session of the West Virginia Legislature.

• • •

Under new business, Councilman Tom Sopher congratulated recorder-treasurer Byrd White on winning the Raleigh County Commission seat, but he asked, “Now what do we do?”

White will assume his new county position at the start of the new year, but he said, “I’m not going to walk out and leave Bill O’Brien high and dry.”

He said he and the mayor are working to find a successor for the recorder-treasurer position.

They have not yet found anyone, but are continuing to make inquiries of various people.

Also under new business, Sopher asked if a sidewalk could be established in a section in front of the new McDonald’s. He said the sidewalk ends abruptly on Prince Street for about 10 or 12 feet, and he would like to see it connect with Robert C. Byrd Drive.

O’Brien said he and Bob Robinson, chairman of the Board of Public Works, have been discussing that issue.

Robinson said they may be able to establish the sidewalk before activity ceases for the winter months.

• • •

During public comments, the new director of the Raleigh County Emergency Operations Center John Zilinski thanked the city for its help during an Oct. 7 tornado in Odd.

He said trees and roads were destroyed during the tornado, but fortunately no houses were totally damaged and no injuries were sustained.

As for the cleanup, he said the damages did not meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements for assistance; it was deemed a local emergency the county must handle on its own.

Zilinski gave a special thank-you to Robinson and O’Brien for stepping up and offering the city’s wood-chipper during cleanup efforts.

“That was a sure sign for folks out in the county, not city residents, that the city cares for those outside the county. In times of disaster, I don’t see a county line or a city line, and I just wanted to say thank you.”

O’Brien also commended Zilinski’s office and staff on their excellent response to the disaster.

• • •

Under old business, O’Brien commended the Board of Public Works on a job well done during the annual fall leaf pickup.

He said 145 loads of leaves were collected, as well as 16 loads of brush.

• • •

Council appointed Frank Williams, a former councilman himself, to serve on the Beckley Human Rights Commission.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren

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