More than 50 people turned up at the Smyrna Community Center Tuesday night for a town hall meeting on the city’s proposed non-discrimination ordinance. If passed, the measure would set up a formal complaint process for anyone who feels they are a victim of discrimination, followed by mediation and, potentially, court hearings and a civil penalty for the violator.
“I’ve given this topic a lot of time and thought, and I’ve considered whether a resolution or an ordinance would be more appropriate,” said Smyrna Mayor Derek Norton at the meeting. “I believe, after giving this a lot of thought, that a resolution really would be only window dressing. What we really need to do is have a solid, enforceable ordinance.”
Smyrna city attorney Scott Cochran took the lead in writing the ordinance, and explained it in detail before public comment began. The city council is expected to vote on it either July 20 or Aug. 3. But it may undergo a few revisions in the interim if those who spoke up during the town hall have their way.
The ordinance, which can be read in full at this link, specifically protects against discrimination by race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, disability, marital status, veteran/military status or age if the person is 40 or older. Any filers must also pay a $50 fee to initiate the process.
About 30 people commented, the vast majority in support of the measure. However, a few took issue with the filing fee, saying there should be a process of applying for a waiver or that it should be eliminated altogether. Several others asked that gender identity be specifically protected from discrimination as well. A third suggestion was to have a panel of moderators rather than just one to decide if complaints have merit.
Among the speakers were public officials including former Atlanta city council member and mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard, who offered to help shape the ordinance if needed, and State Rep. Erick Allen (D – Smyrna), who said he supports it. Former Ward 3 Smyrna city council member Maryline Blackburn also spoke in favor, saying, “I must say I’m pleasantly surprised the city has taken this step.”
Most citizen comments were favorable as well.
“One way I can show that I value those who are different from me is to help ensure that no one is denied a job, home or business service because of these differences,” said Mae Bryan, a local resident. “Smyrna is a strong city, and one reason why we are strong is because of diversity.”
Leah Bulow said she supports it too.
“I’ve heard from other families that they are uncomfortable being out in their schools and churches and neighborhoods right here in Smyrna,” she said. “I want for each of them what I know to be true for myself and my family. This is exactly why I feel that the NDO is so important. It paves a path for a diverse, all-inclusive and welcoming city. For many current residents and potential residents, it is very, very important.”
Kristen Suddeth encouraged passage of the ordinance, saying that at this point there is no reasonable rebuttal.
“You can’t afford not to pass this NDO,” she said. “You don’t have a choice.”
Several other cities in metro Atlanta have passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances, but Smyrna would become the first in Cobb County to do so.
There was some debate over how the ordinance might affect religious groups and whether any religious freedom exceptions would apply.
Pastor Jeff Pennington, of Smyrna First Baptist Church, cited “a sexual ethic that has stood for millennia” and asked for language that the ordinance “shall not apply” to religious organizations and associations. Two other speakers made similar remarks.
In contrast, Smyrna First Methodist Church pastor Derek Porter said that “Jesus does not speak to sexual ethic” and spoke in favor of the measure.
A third pastor, Charles Maxell, said he supports the ordinance and added that he’d like to see homelessness also protected under it.
“The church itself has to also account for prejudice and discrimination,” he said. “As a social advocate, I challenge the church to not hide behind the symbols of love and faith, but to really step out for what Jesus did. He challenged the pharisees and scribes to really do what God called us to do, to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
While Norton said at the beginning of the meeting that the policy has been in the works for nearly a year and was originally set to be discussed in March, several speakers also pointed out the timing of such a move being made in the midst of national protests over police brutality and equality.
“I support the NDO because it has the potential to embody all that is good in Smyrna,” said Shaun Martin. “From the bottom of my heart I love this city. I believe that the NDO is just the perfect statement, at this time in history, for Smyrna to communicate to its citizens that it is time for change. It is time for Smyrna ato stand up for all citizens.”
Haisten Willis is a freelance writer who lives in Smyrna with his wife, daughter and dog. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from California State University, Fresno, serves on the board of SPJ Georgia and even rides a bike when time allows.