By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama’s largest city has passed a housing and employment ordinance that will, for the first time in the Yellowhammer State, protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Birmingham City Council passed the ordinance Tuesday.
“It’s really taking this idea that all citizens of Birmingham are now able to bring their full selves into their job interviews, their full selves into applying for housing, and their full selves as they go and support their local communities in terms of the marketplace,” said Eva Kendrick, the director Human Rights Campaign Alabama.
Until now, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer individuals could be fired by their employer based on their sexual orientation or their gender, or they could be denied housing or evicted. Discrimination will now be a criminal offense in Birmingham under the changes and could be enforced in municipal court.
Most federal or statewide discrimination complaints are handled in civil court.
The ordinance also creates an advisory Birmingham Human Rights Commission to promote diversity, inclusion and harmony in Birmingham. The commission has no legal authority but will advise the City Council and mayor if they receive complaints of discrimination under the ordinance.
“That will be the first stop for receiving complaints of discrimination and from there, that complaint can move to municipal court,” Kendrick said.
Alabama is one of 31 states without LGBT-inclusive, comprehensive non-discrimination ordinances, which, according to Kendrick, leaves it up to cities to protect their citizens.
“We would encourage other cities across the state, and not just the big cities, to really consider taking similar actions and moving these things forward in their local communities,” Kendrick said.
The ordinance protects individuals based on their real or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or familial status from discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.
Those who feel they have been discriminated against will have to appear before a city magistrate and seek a warrant or summons against the alleged employer or renter who might have violated the city ordinance.
Birmingham has been at the front of the pack in Alabama in terms of passing liberal ordinances such as raising the minimum wage or designating themselves as a sanctuary city. Those actions have drawn the ire of the Republican-controlled State Legislature, which has reversed many of Birmingham’s progressive changes.
The State Legislature, as part of the limited home rule provisions in Alabama’s constitution, has afforded cities the authority to pass and regulate housing and employment ordinances. How the Legislature will react to this change remains unclear.
Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin has said he expects the Legislature will try to fight the ordinance.
But Kendrick said she hopes the changes can stay.
“Cities have long been on the forefront of taking action when they face inaction from their state governments,” Kendrick said. “Birmingham is no exception. Hopefully, lawmakers in Montgomery recognize this and recognize that the principles of federalism and local control that they cherish shouldn’t only apply when it’s a policy that they support.”
Fines could be up to $500 but first-offenders would be subject to a fine of $100, according to the ordinance. The second violation would be subject to a $250 fine.