A nondiscrimination ordinance that aims to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identification” to the list of legally protected classes under the local Human Rights ordinance passed first reading Tuesday evening in a 4-3 vote from Beckley Common Council.

The proposed law now proceeds to a second reading and public hearing Jan. 22 at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. If passed, the amendment will be the first time Council has changed the 1989 human rights ordinance in its history.

Housing, public accommodation and employment are the primary concerns of the proposed amendment to the city’s Human Rights ordinance. Crafted by city attorney Bill File, the amendment excludes churches, religious nonprofits and private clubs. While Parkersburg and Buckhannon have voted down similar ordinances, 11 cities in the state — including Morgantown and Lewisburg — have passed a so-called LGBTQ ordinance.

West Virginia University-Institute of Technology, which opened the Beckley campus in 2016, has officially supported the amendment.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group Fairness West Virginia, said he believes the ordinance only asks people to behave according to The Golden Rule.

“To me, it’s ‘Treat others as you’d want to be treated,’” Schneider said. “There’s nothing more in this ordinance, than that.”

Ray Lambert, chairman of West Virginia Family Foundation and a Beckley business owner, said he opposes the ordinance. Lambert told Council that living a homosexual lifestyle shortens a man’s life by 15 years and a woman’s life by 10 years.

Medical professionals, including mental health counselors, reported that suicide rates are higher among LGBTQ youth and adults, due to isolation and bullying.

While passions ran high on Tuesday evening from the crowd of around 250, a few speakers asked Council to find a middle ground.

Linda Wilkerson of Beckley, who opposed the ordinance, asked Council to add to the Human Rights ordinance the language of the federal First Amendment, which protects religion and free speech from government control.

“I want my city to protect those with sincerely held religious beliefs, just the same as you’re going to protect those that are in the LGBTQ community,” Wilkerson said, adding that she did not want the Human Rights Commission to become an arm of the LGBTQ community but to protect other groups, too.

Patrick Williams of Beckley told Council that, as an African-American man, he has already faced discrimination. He said that he does not want to be labeled as a “hater.”

“I don’t think LGBT people hate me because I’m a Christian, but I think it’s unfair that I’m looked at like I hate anybody,” he said, adding that his religious beliefs are protected by the First Amendment, and, “I hope (the First Amendment) remains in this ordinance.”

No current federal or state code protects gender identity or sexual orientation. The amendment aims to protect from discrimination an individual’s sexual orientation (including those who are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and asexual), along with individuals who dress or present in a nontraditional way.

Currently, lower courts have classified the two orders of discrimination as sex discrimination, and employees often sue in federal court, for lack of a local avenue of mediation, supporters of the measure report.

Supporters said the ordinance will give business owners and employees a way of mediating discrimination claims via the local Human Rights Commission, potentially reducing the number of federal discrimination suits filed against business owners, supporters said.

Those who opposed the measure argued that frivolous lawsuits may be increased and that even though a business owner may be vindicated in court, fighting a charge is expensive.

Some urged Council to allow federal or state legislators to act, including state Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette.

Councilman-at-Large Tim Berry made the motion to pass the first reading of the ordinance, and Councilman Tom Sopher (Ward I) seconded it.

The amendment passed by four votes from the seven-member Council, with At-Large Councilwoman Sherrie Hunter and Councilwoman Ann Worley (Ward II) joining Sopher and Berry in voting in favor.

Council members Frank Williams (Ward III), Janine Bullock (Ward V), Kevin Price (Ward IV) did not vote in favor of the amendment.

Williams is chairman of the Human Rights Commission.

A similar ordinance failed in Beckley in 2014. After getting widespread opposition from religious leaders and in the business community, Council tabled the measure and decided to wait on the West Virginia Legislature to give guidance.

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Tuesday’s regular Council meeting was held at Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center to accommodate the estimated 250 attendees.

Around 30 people signed up to speak, including pastors, medical and psychiatric health professionals, LGBTQ community members and their families and state lawmakers.

Haley Elkins, 13, of Beckley, urged Council to pass the amendment. Haley quoted Martin Luther King Jr., telling Council, “We are made by history.

“Now, Mayor and City Council, what side of history do you want to be on?”

Others reminded Council and Mayor Rob Rappold, who pushed for the amendment, to remember that God holds them accountable for their vote.

One man said he had prayed and taught Sunday School and had for years cut off relationships and tried to “pray the gay away.” Becoming emotional, he said he is still gay. He said he could not change his orientation and that he has been bullied and was recently called a derogatory name at a local drugstore.

Other speakers, including Living Waters Church Pastor Clint Van Horn and his wife, Aretha, said they did not hate anyone in the LGBTQ community, but they cannot condone something they believe is a sin.

Matt Bickey, an uptown Beckley business owner, read a list of acts condemned in the Bible, including the eating of pork. He said he supports the ordinance and used Christ’s teachings — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” — to illustrate his point.

One speaker, Dr. Cecilia Chapman, read a definition of rape and then likened the proposed amendment to a violent sexual attack. She used a Bible verse to support her statement that Christians are forbidden to enter into business relationships with nonbelievers.

Robert Dunlap, a local attorney and Human Rights Commissioner who supports the amendment, said he is a Christian and that Jesus loves all the children of the world. He also said that Council members and the Mayor had been attacked by those who oppose the amendment.

After some have called the Beckley ordinance a “bathroom bill,” claiming it would allow predators to enter bathrooms to attack others, one local mom said she had had enough.

“I am a parent of a transgender child,” said Christiana Baisden, a supporter of the amendment. “Bathrooms are one of the most unsafe places for transgenders.”

Baisden said her son, who “came out as transgender female to male” at age 16, was bullied in school and had not safe place for gym class or to use the bathroom.

“He was constantly bullied every day,” said Baisden. “He would hold his urine, dehydrate himself just so he would not need to enter into the bathroom.

“I am tired of people trying to make my son seem like some sort of predator, when all they want to do is have a basic human function.”

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