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Atlanta suburb surprised by nondiscrimination proposal

Churches and residents rally with little notice on a measure that could affect religious groups

Atlanta iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

Atlanta suburb surprised by nondiscrimination proposal

When Frank Auman became mayor of Tucker, Ga., in 2016, he envisioned taking on projects like better sidewalks and safer parks and playgrounds. Since then, the city of about 36,000, which sits 11 miles from downtown Atlanta, has seen those exact improvements plus some large-scale economic development.

In 2019, some residents approached the city council with the idea of adopting a nondiscrimination ordinance. Auman delayed putting it on the city’s agenda for several years because he feared an ordinance protecting certain classes and imposing penalties on offenders would divide the diverse community that straddles the Atlanta area’s busy Interstate 285. In 2021 the council passed a resolution stating that the city is “inclusive, fair, and welcoming,” but for some council members, it wasn’t enough. Despite his concerns, Auman formed a committee to look into drafting a nondiscrimination ordinance. The council reviewed a draft in a September 2022 work session, but no further meetings took place.

Auman said he was surprised, then, to find out last week that council members had added the ordinance to the agenda for this past Monday night’s meeting. Several local religious and business leaders said they didn’t expect it either, and upon reading the proposal, they found definitions that sparked grave concern over the implications for churches and businesses.

The ordinance would include protections for traditional classes such as race, religion, and age, along with sexual orientation and gender identity. While it includes an exception for religious organizations that wish to hire employees who share their beliefs, it narrowly defines which organizations qualify for the exception. That leaves religious entities that are not houses of worship but which hold Biblical views on gender and sexuality vulnerable to challenges. Moreover, some are concerned that the ordinance was presented quickly and without widespread support or even knowledge of its possible effects.

Despite short notice of the ordinance’s consideration, faith leaders rallied congregants quickly to voice their concerns at this week’s city council meeting. In an at-capacity room, with dozens more waiting outside, more than 100 Tucker residents, business owners and churchgoers came out for the first reading of the ordinance. More than 40 people spoke, with the comments evenly split on support.

Overflow crowd outside a city council meeting discussing the nondiscrimination ordinance in Tucker, Ga.

Overflow crowd outside a city council meeting discussing the nondiscrimination ordinance in Tucker, Ga. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Wolfgang Mast

The ordinance defines “religious organization” as one that conducts regular worship services or is considered a religious nonprofit by the IRS. The definition is a “dramatic departure” from similar laws, said Greg Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “Religious schools, social service providers, and others are just as entitled to have their religions to be protected as houses of worship,” Baylor said.

Fewer than 15 of Georgia’s 530-plus cities have nondiscrimination ordinances. Atlanta passed one more than 20 years ago. Doraville became the second city to pass such a measure in November 2018. It was read for the first time and adopted the same night, with no public comment, according to minutes from that meeting. Stephe Koontz, the first transgender person elected to a Georgia city council, presented the ordinance and pushed for it to be heard and voted on that night. Koontz later told Atlanta’s WXIA-TV that the director of Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy group, had previously said “there were a lot of city attorneys that believed that it was illegal for us and we didn’t have authority to be passing ordinances like this.”

Over the next 15 months, the nearby cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, Clarkston, Decatur, Doraville, and Dunwoody all passed nearly identical nondiscrimination ordinances. All the cities are in DeKalb County, on the east side of Atlanta. Some of the measures appear to have passed after only one reading, and few, if any, had periods of public comment from more than three people.

The Tucker proposal has many of the same items as the others. It includes hiring restrictions related to the religion of an employee and limits how religious organizations might operate commercial activities, though it also doesn’t include a definition of “commercial.” The Tucker ordinance includes a penalty of $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

On Monday night, Auman outlined 14 reasons why he previously blocked the measure. He noted that the proposal lacks a definition of sexual preference, potentially leaving the door open for pedophiles to become a protected class. He pointed to the inherent problems that fluidity of gender causes in validating a claim for prosecution and the lack of exemptions for businesses adhering to religious dietary principles.

But Auman said his main concern is that the NDO violates the First Amendment. He said the law compels every property owner, business, and institution to agree publicly with a government’s dictate on individual, personal matters. “Diversity of thought and the ability to disagree should not be subject to government punishment,” Auman told the council.

Pastor Troy Bush of Rehoboth Baptist Church said he shared his religious liberty concerns with the two council members working on the ordinance when they approached him last summer for input. He said he was never asked to meet with the committee and that the wording didn’t change after that meeting. Bush organized many members of his congregation to speak before the council Monday night.

“What this ordinance does on its face value is it sets the city of Tucker up as a sovereign authority that will introduce itself into the life of this church family. … That in and of itself is terribly problematic,” Bush said.

Tucker Presbyterian Church pastor Erik Veerman says he reached out to the council with concerns. He shared scenarios in which women’s shelters might be forced to hire male employees or a female Muslim day care owner might be compelled, against her convictions, to hire men. A mile away, at First Baptist Church of Tucker—the red brick one that anchors the northeast corner of Main Street, where it has met since the 1800s—senior pastor Andrew McNair said the drafting committee never contacted him. Other church leaders who said they had been contacted by the committee all spoke in favor of the ordinance Monday night.

Joe Chapman, the chairman of the Tucker Summit Community Improvement District Board, said the district wasn’t consulted on the ordinance either. In a phone interview, he called it “ludicrous” and “unnecessary.” Chapman said he knows of just one recent discrimination case in Tucker. The employee involved sued and won through existing statutes.

No date has been set for a second reading and vote on the ordinance. Auman said he will host a town hall meeting on May 25 to allow for more public discussion on the issue. He, council member Roger Orlando, and Bush all urged the council to wait on a vote until after the Supreme Court rules on a similar religious liberty case, 303 Creative LLC vs. Elenis. Other council members did not respond to emails.


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