Birmingham’s Human Rights Law Set for Tuesday Public Hearing

Birmingham City Councilor Johnathan Austin (center) discusses the proposed human rights ordinance during a Sept. 6 committee meeting.

Efforts to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in Birmingham are once again underway.

The long-delayed measure, first introduced by City Council President Johnathan Austin in March 2013, will be the subject of a public hearing during the Sept. 26 meeting of the City Council – and now, for the first time, it has the backing of Mayor William Bell.

The City of Birmingham Non-Discrimination Ordinance, colloquially referred to as a human rights ordinance, would put into place protections against discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or familial status. Violators of the ordinance would face up to a $500 fine.

The ordinance also would establish an 11-member Human Rights Commission, composed of representatives from each of Birmingham’s nine districts, who would be recommended by the councilor for each district; a representative from “a recognized nonprofit organization with missions related to human rights, civil rights, or other anti-discrimination perspectives;” and a representative of a business or other employer located in Birmingham. Representatives from the city’s police department, fire department, ADA office, human resources department and city council office would have non-voting positions on the commission, as well. The commission would be responsible for developing public education programs, managing complaints and presenting an annual report to the mayor and council on the number and types of complaints received.

It’s a slight change from the ordinance as originally presented. The commission, for instance, initially was to have 15 members and more power to investigate complaints using subpoenas – something that, in the new version, only the council could do. “But other than that, it’s substantially in the same form as what I first proposed,” Austin said.

An accompanying ordinance, which also will be the subject of Tuesday’s public hearing, would ensure similar nondiscrimination provisions be included in municipal contracts going forward.

The reason for the proposed ordinance’s delay, Austin said, stems from Bell’s not having passed it on to his law department for approval until recently. “I can’t speak for the mayor and why he’s waited until the month before the runoff election to allow us to work with his law department to address the ordinance, but I’m just thankful that we’re able to do it now,” Austin said.

April Odom, director of communications for the mayor’s office, said the mayor had the city’s legal department draft the ordinance and intends to sign it when it is passed by the council. She said it was misleading to say Bell had only recently become interested in the proposal.

Renewed Demand for Measure

Calls for reconsideration of the ordinance have grown louder in recent months. In June, Equality Alabama, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, requested during a public meeting that the council pass a nondiscrimination ordinance. Other organizations that have called for the ordinance’s passage include the Human Rights Campaign and Central Alabama Pride.

The proposed ordinance also has been part of mayoral challenger Randall Woodfin’s campaign platform. In a statement published in May, Woodfin said he would initiate a review of the ordinance within the first 100 days of the administration and would work to secure its passage.

Austin said he is prepared for resistance to the ordinance from members of the state Legislature, whose relationship with Birmingham city government has been “antagonistic” in the past, he said. He cited the Legislature’s 2011 passage of HB 56, one of the strictest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, as a reason to expect opposition.

The human rights ordinance, Austin said, is compliant with current state law. But during a Sept. 6 committee meeting discussing the ordinance, he said he expected there to be a “backlash” from the Legislature, “just like they did with minimum wage.” He was referring to the passage of a minimum wage increase by the City Council last year that was quickly blocked by the state Legislature.

“We’re certainly not going to pass something that would be in conflict with state law,” he said. “But what we can do is, if there are some laws in place that are rather ambiguous, that have to been clarified, then we will find a way within those laws to pass an ordinance that we believe would be good for the city of Birmingham and its citizens… . And if the Legislature has a problem with us fighting for our citizens … then they need to pass a law that says we can’t protect our citizens.”

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance will take place during the Sept. 26 meeting of the Birmingham City Council, which will begin at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall.


This story has been updated to include a comment from the mayor’s office.