Fairness Comes to Western Kentucky

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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“People were jubilant,” said a happy Chris Hartman.

“It was a feeling like no other—the joy – there was a lot of emotion. Some people were crying. A lot of folks said they thought they’d never see it happen.”

Tuesday night, the Paducah City Commission approved an ordinance outlawing discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Hartman heads the Louisville-based Kentucky Fairness Campaign. He traveled 217 miles west to join an overflow crowd, estimated at 250, in Paducah’s city hall.

Hartman said the vote more than encouraged grassroots backers of the measure, which passed 4-1. “It has emboldened our efforts as we work across the state. Western Kentucky is the area where we had had the least outreach and the least movement.”

An historic moment

Paducah, population about 25,100, is the McCracken County seat and the largest city in the eight-county Jackson Purchase region, which is as far west as Kentucky goes.

A standing-room-only crowd gathered for the historic vote by the Paducah City Commission.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered for the historic vote by the Paducah City Commission.

The measure’s approval is historic because the mostly rural, white and Bible Belt Purchase is one of the most politically, socially and religiously conservative sections of the Bluegrass State. Hence, the Purchase is Trump country.

The president collected 72.5 percent of the vote in McCracken, Ballard, Calloway, Carlisle, Fulton, Graves, Hickman and Marshall counties. That’s 10 percent better than his statewide total.

McCracken went for Trump by 66.4 percent.

Paducah is the only western Kentucky community with a fairness ordnance. Henderson, in the Pennyrile region, which sprawls east of the Purchase, passed a similar measure but later repealed it. A fairness ordinance failed in Murray, the Calloway County seat.

The other Kentucky cities with fairness ordinances include Frankfort, the state capital; Louisville, the state’s largest city; and Danville, Covington, Lexington, Midway, Morehead and Vicco.

Hartman is confident that other cities will follow Paducah in passing fairness ordinances. “I believe we are going to see now that one city in the western part of the state has done it, a number of other cities are going to start moving toward it as well.

“Even if we don’t get a city to pass it right away, I think there are going to be movements, sometimes maybe from city leaders, but definitely from supporters, who are going to want to see this where they live.”

Reactions in Paducah

Dan Patterson lives in Paducah and spoke on behalf of the ordinance at the commission meeting. He wasn’t sure if it would pass. “There was a lot support there for it but a lot of opposition, too.”

Patterson, who is retired, said fairness is not a religious or a political issue. “It is a human rights issue.”

He found it ironic that some churches opposed the measure. “The bottom line is love and respect, that’s what Jesus taught. But, incredibly, they don’t look at it that way.”

Presbyterian Martha Emmons, who was also at the meeting, favored the ordinance and was confident it would be approved. “I guess part of the reason I assumed that it would pass was that even though our area did vote heavily for Donald Trump, I have always found us to be a very kind and giving area. To me, it just seemed a question of fairness, and nobody loses anything.”

Emmons—she and her husband own a local bike shop—hopes to win at the polls in November. A Democrat, she’s running for state representative.

She said the vote “affirmed that we are fair to everyone, regardless of who they are or what they believe.”

Mayor Brandi Harless, Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Wilson, and commissioners Sarah Stewart Holland and Allan Rhodes voted for the ordinance.

The lone dissenter was Commissioner Richard Abraham, who proposed a broad religious exemption amendment for business owners. His proposal was debated and rejected.

Praise for the vote across the region

No doubt, the ordinance has more than a few detractors in Paducah and elsewhere in the Purchase. While many in the crowd applauded after the vote, others didn’t. Opponents who spoke claimed the measure harmed religious freedom and was divisive and unnecessary.

But the ordinance is also drawing praise from throughout deepest western Kentucky.

“Any time a community, at the local level, wishes to extend liberties and protections to more people, it is an excellent idea,” said Daniel Hurt of Grand Rivers in Livingston County, which adjoins the Purchase. Hurt is a Murray State University student and a member of the Kentucky Democratic Party’s State Central Executive Committee.

Brian Clardy, a Murray State associate professor of history, called the vote “truly historic.”

Clardy, a Hillary Clinton delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said the vote “guarantees to all, and I do mean all, people the right to enjoy the American dream.”

Holly Erwin, who lives near Mayfield, the Graves County seat, said the vote was “a major step forward for Paducah. It says Paducah is coming of age.”

Erwin, a retiree, is on the Graves Democratic Executive Committee with Leslie McColgin, a speech pathologist who lives near Lowes. “It is so important that we move into the 21st century, and Paducah is leading the way for western Kentucky,” McColgin said.

Added McColgin, who heads Four Rivers Indivisible: “Fairness is going to come everywhere. It may not be tomorrow or the next day, but it is going to come in my lifetime, even though I’m 63 years old.”

(Photos courtesy of Mark Markgraf of WKMS)

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