Denying gays equal rights shames us all

Friday, October 16, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I was taught that discrimination is wrong. And, in this politically correct age, I assumed discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation was illegal.

This week I discovered I was wrong.

My discovery came at the end of a Cincinnati law's nearly six-year odyssey through political battlefields and the courts. (STORY) And I felt angry and ashamed my hometown looked so heartless and small-minded.

It began in 1992, when city council adopted the Human Rights Ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation because of, among other things, a person's sexual orientation. Less than a year later, Cincinnati voters passed Issue 3, barring any such legal protections based on sexual orientation. Issue 3 was a ballot initiative mounted in reaction to city council's ordinance.

Issue 3 was immediately challenged in court and the case had been on appeal and under review for nearly five years. The Supreme Court this week declined to hear the case, in effect agreeing with the voters of Cincinnati and letting Issue 3 stand.

The logic behind Issue 3 was that extra protection based on sexual orientation was unnecessary. "Equal rights not special rights" went the campaign slogan.

But lawyers I've talked with this week say the Supreme Court's action and Issue 3's restrictions basically say to gays: Forget about having your day in court.

"I get one call a month from people in the community who have lost their job because of their sexual orientation," said Cincinnati attorney Scott Knox. "They say, "I've just been terminated because I'm gay.' "

Then they ask: "What protection do I have under the law?" Scott Knox gives them a short, shocking answer.

"None."

"They sense this is illegal," the attorney said. "They feel their civil rights have been violated. They want to fight this in court.

"But I have to tell them people can fire you, people can deny you housing just because you are gay. Homosexuals are not one of the protected groups. People are protected by their race, age, gender, religion, national origin and disabilities. But not by their sexual orientation."

Robert Laufman is a Cincinnati attorney with a national reputation for fighting against housing discrimination and fighting for civil rights. He told me gay people can find some support in court if they qualify as a protected group, i.e. gender or race. Other than that, he tells his gay clients, the courts are not on their side.

Ronna Greff Schneider, a University of Cincinnati law professor, said other legal avenues may work. She cited recent legal decisions where gays have proved discrimination by using the "equal protection clause" of the Constitution, "the basis for all racial discrimination suits."

But she said reliable legal protection for gays was not "a sure shot."

Issue 3 said gay people do not need special protections. If I thought gays were not discriminated against, I'd buy that. But I think they are, here and elsewhere.

When one group is denied rights, it opens the doors for others' rights to be denied. And then there's no end to it. That's one of the reasons this country came into being.

The suffering caused by denying people's rights can be long-lasting and far-reaching. We are still dealing with the poisonous aftereffects of racism that for centuries relegated an entire race of people in America to the status of second-class citizens.

Now we live in a more enlightened age. We're all equal. Everyone's entitled to his day in court.

Then you hear about a homicide in Wyoming state. A college student is tied to a fence and beaten to death, apparently because he was gay.

The two men who allegedly did it acted as if he were less of a human being, someone who didn't have the same rights. Like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Like a right to live.

How long will it take Cincinnati, and the many good people who live here, to tell the rest of the country we think otherwise?

I'm embarrassed for our community.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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