the Beacon Journal editorial board
For Akron to halt its population decline and even begin to grow, it must embrace diversity, drawing from the range of talent necessary. City leaders made a significant contribution toward that goal last week by proposing the formation of a new commission that would more promptly hear discrimination cases and the extension of protections now lacking in Ohio law to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. The proposal would augment efforts already underway to make all feel welcome here.
Under legislation co-sponsored by Mayor Dan Horrigan and Councilman Rich Swirsky, an Akron Civil Rights Commission would hear complaints about discrimination in housing, employment and access to public services and amenities. Many protections already are in place in state and federal law, covering age, sex, race, color, creed and national origin, among other factors, although the local commission would be able to act quickly. Akron proposes to go further, barring discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, following the lead of Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo.
The mayor would appoint five to seven Akron residents to the commission, the members selected to reflect the diversity of the city as a whole. The commission would have teeth, with the ability to levy fines and force restitution.
Akron is already a Welcoming City, a designation signaling its openness to immigrants. The transformation of North Hill by the newly arrived triggered the city to seek the national recognition. This is complemented by the efforts of the University of Akron to attract international students and the city to attract foreign investment as part of advancing entrepreneurial activity.
Unfortunately, Ohioís cities, the engine rooms of the state economy, find much resistance at the Statehouse, which continues to set the wrong tone. Considerable damage was done in 2004, when voters approved a harshly worded amendment against same-sex marriage. In 2015, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriages here and in other states.
But the legislature has failed to act on the next step, which is passing a bill that would ban discrimination in housing and employment based on gender identity and sexual orientation. As noted by attorneys in the Ohio cases that led to the high courtís gay marriage ruling, their clients could be wed one day, then find themselves fired the next.
Even worse, the legislature continues to entertain wrong-headed measures that would allow discrimination to continue under the guise of religious freedom. The Ohio House, for example, is considering legislation that calls for protecting members of the clergy from performing same-sex marriages, reviving the divisiveness of the 2004 amendment. What the bill ignores is that members of the clergy already have protections under the First Amendment ensuring they do not have to perform such ceremonies.
As Akron and other Ohio cities have recognized, sending a message of tolerance and inclusion enhances their image, quality of life and economic prospects. Instead of facing resistance, they should have a partner in the state.