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Updated Feb 18, 2013 - 2:00 pm

Phoenix commissions approve LGBT and disability protections

PHOENIX -- Two commissions in the city of Phoenix unanimously voted to expand more protection to people with disability and members of the LGBT community on Tuesday.

At an open meeting to the public, members of Mayor Greg Stanton's Commission on Disability Issues and the Phoenix Human Relations Commission heard members of the public express their opinions on the new protections provided by the proposals.

"During the time that I've worked with transgender issues we have seen tremendous advancements in the social equality of transgender people, but in large part that is because we've had such an incredible distance to go," Erica Keppler said, who is a seven year co-chair of the Arizona Transgender Alliance and herself a transgender woman. "We still have an incredible distance to go." The new proposals affect a section of the Phoenix city code that covers discrimination policy in the workplace and in housing.

"The single greatest challenge facing transgender people is employment," Keppler said. "It is important for governmental agencies to set a policy, and a standard, and project the message that discrimination will not be tolerated."

Heidi Gilbert, an assistant city attorney, explained that currently Phoenix city law only provides protection for city employees against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and disability. But the new proposals would affect private businesses that fit the city's definition of an employer.

Gilbert said that means anyone who employs at least one person for a minimum of 20 weeks in a calendar year could be affected.

"Adding sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and disability to the city's ordinance, would cover if you are doing business within the city of Phoenix and you have one or more employees," Gilbert said. "One of your employees could potentially come down and make a complaint to the EOD [Equal Opportunity Department]."

Six members of the public stood before the commissions and expressed their thoughts on the proposals; out of that number five voiced their support while one person expressed opposition.

"There is a potential concern for businesses that have offices in multiple cities across our state to have unequal enforcement of the law throughout our state," Legal Consultant Joseph La Rue, with the Alliance Defending Freedom said. La Rue said the new proposals may make hiring decisions difficult for multi-city companies. The Alliance Defending Freedom is a nonprofit religious rights group dedicated to defending religious freedom, marriage and family, and pro-life issues.

La Rue also opposed the new proposals because of potential costs to small businesses if further protections are added to the city ordinances.

"What we've seen in other places where amendments like these are passed is the cost to small business owners goes up," La Rue said. "There is the threat of litigation anytime [businesses] fail to hire someone who is a member of the protected class."

La Rue said that as more groups in society earn protection, it makes it more difficult for business to avoid costly lawsuits even if they did no wrongdoing. The proposals would also extend protection against discriminating towards disability or sexual orientation for housing.

"There have been many people who have been ejected from housing when it was found out that they were transgender," Keppler said. "We deal constantly with transgender people who live lives in poverty because they can't find employment, [or] can't find housing."

The newly included protections to disability, sexual orientation, and sexual identity and expression in fair housing would make it illegal for housing providers to discriminate against people of these groups.

Another change to city ordinance would be that the police department would no longer handle claims of discrimination. Even though it has long been policy for the EOD to look into discrimination complaints, the police department would officially no longer have any involvement.

"We are also eliminating a reference in the ordinance that allowed for a person who felt discriminated against to go to the police department to file a complaint," Marquita Beene with the EOD said. "We didn't know of anyone that ever did that, and the police department, quite frankly, didn't know that was what they were supposed to do. So we're removing that section so that people will just come to the Equal Opportunity Department."

With the two commission's unanimous vote to apply the new proposals to city ordinance, the proposals will move forward to the City Council's Policy Committee that will vote on the issue Feb. 26th, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the city council chambers. If the council approves the proposals, the changes would officially be made to city ordinances.

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