“This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no foolin’ around.” That was the message of the clergymen who showed up to speak against the Buncombe County Commissioners’ intention to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes in county policies. The pastors who spoke proclaimed their God was true and living and not to be mocked. They were exercising their rights of free speech and practice of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The Spirit of the Law –
Members of the clergy were well aware they would be put on the offensive and accused of hate speech, and so Bible verses were chosen carefully to reflect the love of God. Andrew Sluder, pastor of Black Mountain Independent Baptist Church, opened his comments by quoting four scriptures: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30), “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3), “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20), and what he repeated was his Savior’s last commandment, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
The gist of Sluder’s message was that every soul was precious. He was called to declare repentance. The Bible taught no unclean thing could enter the glory of God’s presence, and he wanted all to partake of the redeeming grace the Savior suffered so much agony to make available. Sluder showed his love for God and man by striving to help his brethren be worthy of a beautiful, serene place in God’s presence for eternity.
He surely had read the Bible enough to expect his message of hope would be construed as hate speech. He noted the county claimed the framers of the proposed language had consulted key people and organizations, but wondered who those unnamed entities were, and whether or not conservative members of the faith community had been consulted. Worse, he expected the simple request for two more protected classes to be named would be used against his Constitutional right and holy calling to declare the Word. Would he be limited to preaching only the politically-correct portions of the Bible lest he be sued for harassment and discrimination?
Lost on supporters of the amendment was the old Sunday school lesson about loving the sinner and hating the sin. All souls are precious in the eyes of their Creator, who desires them to choose to be free from the shackles of enslaving, disabling, antisocial, or otherwise destructive decisions, unpopularly described as “evil” or “sin.” We’re all sinners. We all err, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes out of ignorance. What is important is that we follow our conscience, keep our own covenants, and love others with patience and long-suffering as they wend their way along a different path. Perhaps the worst sin is exercising compulsion over another soul. The conflict was in defining where the dividing line should be between religious rights and gay rights. Free speech ought to allow one to broach a subject, but respect their intended audience’s wishes and take it somewhere else when asked to hush.
That votes were divided along party lines illustrated the distinction between partisan stereotypes of conservative Republicans interested in the traditional concept of cultivating individual souls with aspirations for innovation and achievement, and progressive Democrats leading by corralling available protoplasm into programs engineered to prolong its life.
“The Bible is the bottom line,” proclaimed Wendell Runion. Runion, president of International Baptist Outreach Missions and manager of WKJV-AM, called the commissioners’ attention to the subject matter of the first part of the meeting, identifying a disconnect. Earlier, they proclaimed April 2013 to be Child Abuse Prevention Month. Commissioner David King read the proclamation, which stated that in North Carolina alone 125,000 children were reported to be abused or neglected. No guess of the unreported numbers was provided. In Buncombe County, 3985 children were involved in reports of abuse or neglect. Bill McGuire told of instances of children being sexually abused, Dawn Warren told of infant fatalities, and Becky Kessel told of programs for reducing child abuse and strategies for connecting people with government services. Included in Kessel’s presentation was news of a grant from an unspecified source in an unspecified amount. Clientele for some programs are school-age mothers.
The next proclamation proclaimed April to be Smart Justice Month. Programs, including “Pretrial Services, JUST, Jail Diversion, SOAR Court, Adult Drug Court, and the Justice Resource Center” were hailed as helping keep offenders out of prison. The county’s Director of Pretrial Services Kim Gordon told how the county’s criminal justice departments work well together and have received recognition for their continual ideation and implementation of programs to meet the county’s needs. Gordon said only a small percentage prisoners are incarcerated for criminality or criminal thinking; the rest suffer mental health issues or substance abuse.
Runion questioned the commissioners’ willingness to spend great sums on trying to piece back together the fragments of broken homes. Runion left it at that and did not elaborate on the traditional notion that families were ordained of God, with a mother and a father, for the wholesome rearing and support of children. Too many kids lack the guidance and sense of belonging and unconditional love they would get from a traditional family. The county’s approach was reminiscent of the parable of keeping an ambulance in the valley rather than building a guardrail on the mountain.
The Rev. Philip Wilson of Brown’s Chapel Baptist Church in Weaverville said this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and God blessed and protected the land because of the faith of the people. He used the story of Samson to illustrate how those mightily blessed become vulnerable as they turn their hearts away from God. Some who spoke said they were believers who knew of no scriptures speaking against homosexuality. Others said the god they knew was a god of love who would not allow his children to be harassed or suffer discrimination.
The Letter of the Law –
It was as if the commissioners from Districts 2 and 3 were trying to stop an action their constituents opposed without stepping on any toes. Joe Belcher requested that the commissioners delay consideration of the addition of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as classes protected by the county from harassment and discrimination. About an hour and a half before the meeting, County Attorney Mike Frue had learned of a bill filed in Raleigh that could prevent the county from naming additional protected classes. Reportedly, the language was some kind of rider on a bill to prevent fracking.
Belcher and David King expressed concerns that by naming extra protected classes, the county might render itself ineligible to receive the $4 million in state and federal aid it gets each year. Brownie Newman said thousands of bills were introduced every year, and most went nowhere. Holly Jones said if the legislature was so petty as to “yank rights away from our people, bring it on!” A motion to delay consideration until June 18 died with votes following party lines.
Afterward, Aaron Sarver, who serves as Communications Director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, called attention to another pending bill, HB429 (S544), which would add the same two classes as the county was proposing to the state’s equal-opportunity and nondiscrimination policies. Next he rattled off the names of over a dozen local governments in the state that had already amended their nondiscrimination documents to include the new classes. Lastly, he said twelve states had officially protected the classes and experienced no deprivation of federal funds.
Meghann Burke, who volunteers as the Legal Team Leader for the CSE said the way the courts have been interpreting Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, the county could make itself liable if it doesn’t add equal protection language to its policies. Larry Smith said he represented Wayne Warren a few decades ago when he sued the City of Asheville for trying to fire him for refusing to take a lie detector test to determine whether or not he was telling the truth about his sexual orientation. Smith acknowledged the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, understood it to protect the rights of all citizens equally, and said it was a shame redundant legislation was deemed necessary. But since it was deemed so, he would support the addition of the new classes to the county’s policies.
Both Burke and the CSE’s executive director, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, argued that LGBT employees in general suffered high rates of harassment and discrimination, and felt it safe to assume the cause was related to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Commissioner Mike Fryar recalled how Bill Stanley, who served as a county commissioner for 24 years, said he was aware of no incidences of harassment or discrimination against members of the LGBT community employed by the county.
The delay tactics failing, the Republicans resorted to a, in Belcher’s words, “people are people” fallback position. It would be palatable to their conservative constituents not to create new special classes. Fryar called attention to those who would still fall through the cracks, like those who smoke, drink, drug, or engage in other activities when they go home. “I like to think of you as human. I don’t need to be told if you are bisexual, gay, lesbian, transsexual, . . . .”
King was conflicted. He knew he would upset people no matter how he voted. He kept trying to stall the vote. Belcher, on the other hand, said it was important not to conflate compassion with conviction. He liked the comment a minister had made about their church not making people fill out applications. He did not ask about the orientation of servers when he goes out to eat. He believed the law was already designed to protect all people.
Ellen Frost said she had been raised by a very religious mother, and she had heard a lot of hate speech during the meeting. Newman wanted members of the LGBT community to know they were not going to lose their jobs with the county. He wanted people to know Buncombe County was “safe, inclusive, and welcoming.” Chair David Gantt said the emails he had received were sufficient to inform him the protective language was warranted. In the end, Jones merely repeated what Gantt had said at the last meeting, that it was never the wrong time to make the right decision. The policy changes were approved on two 4-3 votes, and they will return for a second reading.