Birmingham City Hall – Photo: Chris Pruitt, via Wikimedia.
On Tuesday, after nearly a decade of planning and a public hearing, the Birmingham City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The fully inclusive ordinance passed on a unanimous 7-0 vote, with 2 Council members absent. The ordinance now goes to Mayor William Bell, a Democrat, who has promised to sign it into law.
The ordinance also protects people from discriminating based on a person’s real or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status, and creates a Human Rights Commission that will take complaints from citizens and advise city leaders on how best to resolve those complaints.
“Today is a monumental victory for everyone who lives and works in Birmingham, who are now fully protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations,” Alex Smith, the executive director of Equality Alabama, said in a statement. “No one should be discriminated against because of who they are or whom they love, and Birmingham took action today to ensure that.”
In a follow-up interview with Metro Weekly, Smith noted that his organization had worked closely with the Human Rights Campaign, Equality Federation, and other advocates to carefully craft the ordinance in a way that it would comply with Alabama law.
“The General Assembly and the city of Birmingham have a tense, lengthy, checkered history with one another,” Smith said. “While we’ve received no threats from lawmakers or the governor, we do fully expect that fight when the state legislature reconvenes next January.”
Part of the reason the ordinance was so carefully crafted to comply with state law was to ensure that lawmakers in Montgomery couldn’t legitimately claim that the Birmingham City Council had illegally usurped power that is reserved for the state legislature, as occurred in North Carolina after the city of Charlotte passed a similar ordinance.
For instance, Smith says, initially the first draft had the Human Rights Commission set up by the act as the primary enforcer of the ordinance. However, advocates changed enforcement to allow municipal courts to enforce the law through fines, which is legal under the Alabama constitution even though Alabama is not a “home rule” state. The fines, as set forth by the ordinance, are $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation, and, for a third or subsequent violations, $500 — the maximum amount allowed under state law.
The passage of the ordinance makes Birmingham the first city in Alabama to pass a fully comprehensive and LGBTQ-inclusive local ordinance — a major step for a state that lacks any laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Both Huntsville and Mobile have human rights commissions, and the city of Montevallo is expected to follow Birmingham’s example in the coming months.
“Today, the City of Birmingham made history in Alabama by taking a crucial step toward ensuring LGBTQ residents are protected from discrimination,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “In doing so, Birmingham joins Jackson and Magnolia, Mississippi in setting an example for cities across the South to follow. Now, it is time for all southern cities to guarantee the right of LGBTQ people to live their lives free from discrimination.”
Smith noted that LGBTQ advocates have forged strong relationships with members of the state’s business community in anticipation of an HB 2-style law being proposed during the next legislative session. Vocal opposition to anti-LGBTQ laws from major corporations has helped stall harmful bills from passing in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas in the past year.
“Having this ordinance in place sends a clear message that Birmingham is a fair, inclusive, welcoming city,” Smith added. “Though first and foremost this ordinance is a victory for the people, it will also prove to be a boon for Birmingham’s business interests. A city protected from discrimination is a city that competes and is open for business.”