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Gender identity, sexual orientation laws fail to move forward at Holland City Council

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Rev. Bill Freeman reads from his copy of the U.S. Constitution during a packed out public hearing on the proposed changes. Freeman first requested city council to study the issue a little over a year ago.

Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. today, at least 50 people file out of Holland City Hall. I hear some say, “They don’t get it, but you tried.”

A few people wearing "Holland is Ready" buttons hug one another -- some are tearing up -- after city council voted 5 to 4 against the recommendation to adopt the proposed anti-discrimination laws. The recommendation included providing homosexual and transgender persons protection from employers and landlords who discriminate against them.

Councilmember Jay Peters (a "yes" vote) says he has lived in the city ward he represents his whole life, so nothing he heard from the public surprised him.

“It’s very rare that we have something to talk about here that – the facts – there are no facts, its seems like such a nebulous thing. But in my gut and in my soul I know that the discrimination that’s been talked about here happens.”

Several council members who voted against the changes say nine city officials shouldn’t make such a controversial decision.

“We can do that with resurfacing, or bridges, but this is really a social issue,” Councilmember Nancy DeBoer ("no"vote) says, “It really involves differences in faith, business ownership, property ownership and the social norms.”

DeBoer says she heard compelling, passionate stories and perspectives she would have never otherwise heard.

“This has been a very hard journey for me. The last thing I want to see in a community that I love is a community that fights with itself.”

Several expressed their belief that such a decision should be up to voters, for the entire community to decide.

“If you want this to be an inclusive and welcoming city – if you believe Holland is indeed ready," Councilmember Brian Burch (a "no" vote) says, “I would ask you to join the cause and take the conversation to every man and woman in the city and place this on the ballot.”

Reverend Bill Freeman, who petitioned Holland city council to consider the changes says he's "disappointed." The decision follows more than a year of studying and debating the issue in the generally conservative city.

“The congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the congress passed the Voting Rights Act," Freeman said, "They didn’t wait for a referendum of the people. They knew what the right thing to do was and they did it.”

Although Councilman Peters says “it’s getting better”, he says business owners have discussed for years how unwelcoming West Michigan can be, and how that can affect what talent companies in the region can attract.

“This is not a choice, this is a DNA thing,” Peters said, “When you look at it that way it becomes a heck of a lot easier to get your hands around. We’re just different.”

The state and federal government do not protect homosexuals and transgender persons from discrimination in housing and employment. About 20 Michigan cities do offer those protections.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s investigative reporter. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor and West Michigan Reporter.
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