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April 23, 2010

Bowling Green’s new equality law will be put to a vote

Bowling Green, Ohio--A pair of equal rights ordinances passed last year will be put to a public vote this fall after anti-gay groups filed enough signatures to seek their repeal.

The Wood County Board of Elections confirmed last month that  petitions filed in September contain enough signatures. Each petition needed 805 valid signatures. Procedural delays kept them from certification in time to make next month’s primary election.

The two ordinances were passed by the Bowling Green City Council last August 17 following heated debate where more than 50 citizens spoke.

The petition filing halted both new measures from taking effect, pending the outcome of the election.

The new ordinances expand existing measures to prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, marital status, military status, veteran status, genetic information, HIV status and physical characteristics.

The original laws included race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, creed, ancestry, disability, and family status.

The new measures also created a complaint and penalty process that emphasizes mediated settlements over court action.

One of them covers housing. It passed unanimously. The second covers public accommodations, education and employment. It passed 6-1.

Political ideology was also considered as a protected class, but rejected on the night of the vote.

The ordinances were proposed by Equality BG and sponsored by Ward 2 councilor John Zanfardino.

A group is organizing to defend them. Called the Bowling Green Coalition for Justice, it will include representatives of all the groups being challenged, though organizer Jane Rosser acknowledges that the measures’ opponents object mostly to LGBT people being covered.

“We will be running an affirmative and positive campaign and are busy strategizing about how to build support among the business community who are an important constituency,” said Rosser.

Rosser said the petition drive had been relatively low-key. Circulators were seen at places like golf courses and churches.

“People would report that they saw their neighbors passing petitions around,” Rosser said, “but it is more of a cluster of individuals, not an energized group.”

Repeal backers have rightist ties

However, the repeal groups are possibly more organized than Rosser acknowledges. Church involvement is indicated by religious language used in their messages.

Three individuals comprise the petition committee: Gary Thompson, Mary Vollmar and Douglas Freeman, all of Bowling Green.

Vollmar, a financial supporter of the Bowling Green Christian Academy, protested the ordinances during city council meetings.

Freeman is a blogger and web organizer. He writes the blog We By For, which advocates an Ohio constitutional amendment to keep the new health care reforms out of the state, opposes abortion and reproductive rights, and champions unregulated free markets.

It also promotes “traditional values” and espouses the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation. It is openly anti-gay.

Freeman denied being involved with the Bowling Green Ohio Tea Party Patriots, though his blog promotes the group and links to its website.

Freeman’s blog also promotes and links to two sites of the Children of Liberty, which states as its purpose, “To reclaim God in our lives, and in so doing, secure His place at the center of our country’s social and political conscience.”

That group’s website features a photo of its organizer in military fatigues, holding an assault rifle.

Thompson owns the apartment property firm Thompson and Thompson Rentals.

Thompson contributed to Florida4Marriage.org, the group that collected signatures and passed Florida’s constitutional marriage ban in 2008.

When contacted, Thompson said he was the petition group’s spokesperson, but would not say whether his group has a name or how many were involved.

Asked if, as a landlord, he rents to lesbian and gay people, Thompson became silent for nearly 15 seconds, then said, “I’m not going to talk any more to you.”

Freeman said the group is “a bunch of concerned citizens,” and “business people and individuals.”

He refused to name anyone or tell how many are involved, other than to say, “It’s a lot of people.”

‘Not just about LGBT people’

Rosser wants the campaign to save the ordinances to involve more than LGBT concerns.

“This campaign is not just about LGBT people,” Rosser said. “What they want to repeal also includes pregnant people and veterans.”

“So far the focus has been on organizing the others on our side, establishing an issues committee and building a website,” Rosser said.

Rosser said that based on typical election turnout, they need to get about 6,000 votes against the repeals.

In order to do that, the group will start targeting voters who turn out in next month’s primary, where a school levy will also be on the ballot.

Ordinance opponents, however, are already starting with a base of the more than 2,000 petition signatures they collected.

Rosser is not sure how much money will be needed to protect the ordinances, but notes that the Wood County area around the college community is very conservative and very church oriented. She does not expect outsiders to stay out of the opposition campaign.

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