The Sterling Heights City Council voted four to three on Tuesday to advance an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance to a second reading. If passed, Sterling Heights, Michigan’s fourth largest city, would become the 34th municipality in the state to pass non-discrimination protections for the LGBT community in the absence of federal and statewide civil rights laws. The ordinance would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations.
For nearly three hours, members of the public gave input on the ordinance and shared their sentiments on what this ordinance would mean to them and the city. While the vast majority of the comments were supportive and made appeals to fairness, economic empowerment, and making the city of Sterling Heights a welcoming place to all people, a dozen individuals did speak out against the ordinance and suggested that such an act would somehow infringe upon their religious beliefs.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Taylor addressed these concerns to his fellow council members and to the audience by making it clear that nobody’s religious freedoms were being trampled on.
“For those of you concerned that your ability to practice religion is being taken away, that is not the case. We can argue and debate many things, but this is not one of them,” he said. “The First Amendment is your shield and it protects you and your ability to practice religion, but it is not a sword to be used to strike down your fellow citizens because they do not agree with you.”
The mood of the event was largely positive as people stepped to the microphone to share their thoughts. One particular resident, Jeff Garapy, a longtime conservative activist in Sterling Heights really set the bar for the evening and drew a round of applause with his comments, "I’m a conservative, a Republican, a concealed pistol carrying capitalist and I am here to tell you that it’s okay to be conservative and support this ordinance. I have family members who are gay and are afraid to come out. Discrimination is real and it happens every day. It is subtle, it is rarely overt, and it is laws like this that are necessary to protect LGBT people…Freedom is for all of us not just some of us who fit into a preconceived norm. Sometimes freedom for all makes us uncomfortable, that is the challenge of freedom."
Following public comment, a moment of tension filled the room as council members voiced concerns about the ordinance and the need to delay the second reading until more research could be conducted. However, before a motion could be brought forth, Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte made it clear where he stood on the issue.
“I do not understand the problem with this, we have heard from the people and we have done our research and it is clear,” said the mayor. “I will vote for this now and I will vote for this again. It is the right thing to do.”
A motion was made to delay the ordinance, but failed on a three to four vote. A second motion was then introduced to advance the ordinance to a second reading which then passed on a four to three vote. With the primary business of the evening being complete, the Council then broke for a temporary recess thus allowing supporters to celebrate.
HRC volunteers and transgender activists Joanna Hill, and Second Lt. Sarah Strongin were pleased with the evening’s results and were among many who spoke during public comment. For both Ms. Strongin and Ms. Hill, an electrical engineer with the auto industry, the evening was about putting a face on the transgender community and all of its contributions to society. “We’re here, we’re your neighbors, and all we want is to be able to be a part of this community and to provide for our families. We are hard working members of society and tonight Sterling Heights took the first steps to acknowledge that.”