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| 3 min read | by Sean Dalton |

When the Chelsea Human Rights Commission was granted approval by the City Council to draft a resolution in support of the HR5 Equality Act this past November 4, it was granted by a slim 4-3 margin.

At the last City Council meeting on December 6, that margin slid one vote against the commission’s desire to support HR5 at the local level when another 4-3 vote denied the commission’s request to have the city government ratify its support resolution.

For those who don’t know what HR5 is, it is a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 17 of this year and was sent to the Senate on May 20. The bill was read twice and then referred to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee where it has remained until now without any further action taken. Some in Washington believe that it will have to wait until the 2020 election, specifically for a victory by the Democratic Party.

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HR5 is an attempt to address discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the same way that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and various other laws passed throughout America’s history have done for people of color and women – the core concept being that a person should be treated the same as all other people, regardless of his or her traits or attributes.

There is currently no ratified federal law on the books that specifies sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the same way that race, religion, and cis gender are specified for the purposes of protecting United States citizens from prohibited practices of discrimination.

HR5 would grant the Department of Justice the power to intervene in equal protection actions in federal court in instances where a person was denied their full rights based on the aforementioned criteria. It would also nullify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which gave individuals latitude to discriminate against people based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity under the cover of freedom of religious expression.

Councilmembers Jane Pacheco and Rick Catherman moved and second the motion; respectively, to approve the resolution without edits, but Councilmember Cheri Albertson joined Mayor Melissa Johnson and Councilmembers Peter Feeney and Charles Wiseley in voting down the resolution as written.

“The way that this current resolution is worded, it is outside the mandate of the current ordinance passed by the City Council,” Albertson said, in reference to the fact that the commission’s resolution made assertions reflecting HR5 wording in the form of “whereas” and “therefore, be it resolved” statements that would have effectively legislated the HR5 provisions into local law by passage of the resolution, which would have gone beyond or superceded the city’s own Non-Discrimination Ordinance No. 175 passed on January 19, 2016.

Albertson explained that she was expecting to see a simple resolution of endorsement or support from the commission when she first sat down to review the document. Ultimately her concern with the resolution as presented is that it represents an action that would be considered outside of legal bounds for any city commission, given the nature of the functional relationship between a city council and its commissions.

“The Planning Commission (for example) when it is doing its deliberation, it must by law follow the master plan – a piece of legislation passed by the council,” Albertson explained. “Every commission has a mandate to follow established legislation.”

Albertson qualified her vote against the resolution by stating that she was “disappointed” that she couldn’t vote in support of the resolution, given that the commission obviously put in a great deal of “due diligence” and “effort” into the resolution. 

“I see the importance of addressing issues of discrimination and inequalities, but this is not representative of the ordinance that the city passed,” she concluded.

Those who voted against the resolution previously made no additional comments, aside from Mayor Johnson reiterating that her previous concerns when she voted against the measure on November 4 still remain.

Frank Hammer, who was another of the no votes against the commission’s HR5 support resolution, has since retired from serving on the council and was not present for the December 6 meeting.

Albertson invited the commission to write and submit a simple resolution of endorsement for HR5 to the council for review at a future meeting.

Former City Councilmember Rod Anderson serves on the commission as a dissenting member. He also submitted a statement against HR5 and the commission’s resolution largely on the grounds that HR5 infringes on religious expression broadly in many instances, but specifically in the case of nullifying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Those who wish to read the draft resolution and Anderson’s objection can do so on the city’s website when viewing the December 6 City Council meeting agenda and packet (https://www.city-chelsea.org/Portals/0/Complete%20Packet%2012_16_19_1.pdf).

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