By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DOWNTOWN - There's very little that supporters and opponents of Article XII of Cincinnati's charter agreed on Thursday as they debated whether City Council should be allowed to pass a gay-rights ordinance.
If Thursday's civil-yet-chilly exchange is any indication, the coming debate will be about biology (whether homosexuality is learned or innate), politics (whether City Council went too far when it passed a gay rights ordinance in 1992) and economics (whether Cincinnati's anti-gay reputation is bad for business).
But most of all, it will be about who gets to define the terms: "discrimination" versus "special rights."
Both sides met Thursday for the first time since a federal appeals court upheld Article XII, and gave short presentations to the city's Human Relations Commission.
Article XII, passed by voters as Issue 3 in 1993, prohibits City Council from enacting an ordinance giving "minority or protected status, quota preference or other preferential treatment" to gays and lesbians.
Phil Burress, chairman of Equal Rights, Not Special Rights, said the amendment isn't discriminatory, and emphasized the "preferential treatment" language.
"To identify a group of people as a minority class based on behavior is wrong," Burress said. "Sexual orientation is not who you are. It's what you do."
Not so, said members of the Citizens to Restore Fairness, which is leading the repeal campaign.
"I don't believe sexual preference is a choice any more than the color of my skin is a choice, or my gender is a choice," said Jill M. Benavides of Mount Auburn. "The message my government is sending is that I don't have the right to complain to the government if I feel I've been discriminated against."
Burress and Citizens to Restore Fairness Chairman Gary Wright also disagreed on whether discrimination against homosexuals is widespread.
"The only evidence that I would present is that the law was in effect from 1993 to 1995 before City Council repealed it, and there were no claims of discrimination proven," Burress said.
If Article XII were discriminatory, a federal court would have certainly struck it down, Burress said. (It was, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and the Supreme Court declined to take the case.)
Wright acknowledged that discrimination doesn't happen as often as it used to. But he pointed to the 2002 New Year's Eve killing of Gregory Beauchamp - who was killed by a gunman shouting anti-gay epithets as Beauchamp was walking to a party wearing women's clothing - and to a recent rash of anti-gay graffiti in Northside.
"For people who have eyes to see and ears to hear, I would submit that there is evidence - anecdotal, yes - that discrimination exists," he said.
Burress refuted claims by repeal supporters that Cincinnati is "the only city in the country with a law that unfairly singles out gays and lesbians."
In fact, Houston has a similar provision approved by voters in 2001. Known as Section 22, it says the city "shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children; nor shall the City provide any privilege in promotion, hiring, or contracting to a person or group on the basis of sexual preference."
Houston's amendment, which came in response to a mayoral plan to provide same-sex partner health benefits, does not prohibit its council from banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Cincinnati's does.
To Rev. Paula Jackson of the Church of Our Savior in Mount Auburn, Article XII sends a message that gays and lesbians aren't welcome.
"You can ruin people in middle school and high school just by saying they're gay," she said.
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