After intense debate in front of a packed city council chamber that ran well into the early morning hours, South Bend's Common Council voted down a proposed gay rights ordinance for the second time in as many years on a 5-4 vote. In this heavily populated Catholic community, home to Notre Dame University, supporters of the proposal were outmatched by the lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church.
As the council took up the issue anew a couple of months ago, Bishop John D'Arcy drew an early line in the sand, taking the unusual step of putting out a public statement urging the defeat of the ordinance. He slammed the ordinance, which would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, saying it was "more about validating in law homosexual lifestyles and behaviors than it is about addressing unjust discrimination." He warned that passage of the ordinance would lead to wider efforts to promote homosexuality as it had in other communities which had past similar ordinances.
To make sure all Catholics in South Bend got the message, the church took the step of reprinting Bishop D'Arcy's statement opposing the ordinance in a church bulletin, along with contact information for Mayor Stephen Luecke and each of the 9 common council members. Ironically, the anti-discrimination ordinance exempted the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. The Catholic Church joined forces with the extremist, anti-gay bigoted organization No Special Rights, which spewed hate-filled messages about gays and lesbians over the past several months in South Bend. Interestingly, the Catholic arch diocese in Indianapolis stayed out of a similar debate in Indianapolis this past year as its city-county council narrowly approved an identical ordinance after a hard-fought battle by Indianapolis' GLBT community against the Christian right.
Tonight's loss is a major setback for Mayor Stephen Luecke, a Democrat, in his efforts to revitalize the struggling community, both economically and culturally. He was slapped down by his own party, which controls the council by an 8-1 margin. The council Democrat president, the Rev. Timothy Rouse, publicly announced his opposition to the ordinance in an opinion piece critical of the equal rights proposal in the South Bend Tribune. Rouse falsely claimed that Indiana law prohibited South Bend from enacting an ordinance which provided more extensive civil rights coverage than state law. He also attacked a poll commissioned on behalf of Indiana Equality, which showed 79% of Hoosiers favored equal rights for gays and lesbians, as biased.
The five council members who voted against the amendment were Derek Dieter, D-1st; David Varner, R-5th; Erv Kuspa, D-6th; Timothy Rouse, D-at large, and Karen White, D-at large. Voting in favor of the amendments were sponsor Charlotte Pfeifer, Roland Kelly, D-3rd; Ann Puzzello, D-4th; and Al "Buddy" Kirsits, D-at large.
South Bend Equality, which led local efforts to pass the ordinance on behalf of the GLBT community, should be lauded for its hard work and uplifting message over the past two years in the face of its opponents' message of intolerance and religion-based bigotry. Their efforts have not proved fruitless. Mayor Luecke has promised to issue an executive order adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's EEO policy, which will protect city workers from discrimination.
Catherine Pittman of South Bend Equality assures the South Bend Tribune she is undeterred by last night's vote. The Tribune's Jamie Loo wrote:
Following the vote, Catherine Pittman, a member of South Bend Equality, which fought for the bill's passage, said the group was disappointed but undeterred. The council could've made the choice to pass the amendments to allow gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons to bring their concerns to the Human Rights Commission. The group will continue to fight for GLBT civil rights in this community, Pittman said.
"We're going to keep coming to Common Council," Pittman said. "There's no other place to go. We're going to continue to bring our concerns here."