NewsNews Features

New Civil Rights Ordinance Prohibits Athens Businesses From Discriminating

Members of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement marched on City Hall to demand a civil rights ordinance in 2016. Credit: Joshua L. Jones / file

Athens residents now have a local avenue to pursue discrimination claims, thanks to a new civil rights ordinance recently approved by the Athens-Clarke County Commission. 

Unanimously passed on Aug 3., the ordinance aims to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status or veteran/military status, as well as provide Athenians with equal access to employment, housing and public accommodations. After debate, the commission decided not to include polyamory, or the practice of having multiple partners, because of uncertainty over its durability in court.

Local activists applauded the progress, but hoped for greater inclusion.

“I would personally like to see it expanded to include more identities and more marginalized groups,” said Cameron Harrelson, who serves as vice president of the LGBTQ group Athens Pride, but added that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the organization. “But the fact that we have something on the books now at least doesn’t invalidate the years of work that marginalized communities that are included have been putting in to make sure we are heard, seen and have the avenues for recourse.”

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to all Americans, and many states have passed supporting anti-discimination statutes, Georgia has no such legislation. But Athens-Clarke County has now joined Atlanta, Clarkson, Brookhaven, Chamblee and others in creating municipal ordinances on human rights. Mayor Kelly Girtz originally charged the commission’s Legislative Review Committee with studying Brookhaven’s anti-discrimination ordinance to model one for Athens.

Mokah-Jasmine Johnson’s organization, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, has been advocating for a human rights ordinance for minority Athenians since 2015, starting with its first protest brought on by a racist drink offered at local bar General Beauregard’s, and subsequent reports of downtown college bars using dress codes to keep out Black customers. Johnson said she appreciates the new ordinance, especially in comparison to the limited 2016 ordinance that banned discrimination only at bars, but she emphasized that this is just one step in the right direction. 

“I hope that the government will not only just have it on a document that they’re against discrimination, but promote it and let people know what to do if discrimination happens to them,” Johnson said. “When you promote it, people start rising up, and when they do, they have to listen and have an infrastructure in place that is going to respond.”

Commissioner Allison Wright, who chairs the Legislative Review Committee that wrote the ordinance, said it’s a commission priority to ensure Athenians are aware of the avenues by which they can file a complaint.

The ordinance threatens a fine of $1,000 for every violation, and a business can be banned from operating in Clarke County after three offenses. Complaints may be filed with the county attorney’s office within 90 days of the violation. In addition, voluntary mediation is available to facilitate conversations between the plaintiff and defendant. Churches and other religious organizations maintain the right to restrict their membership and amenities to religiously aligned parties. Private nonprofit clubs are also exempt. 

Activists are now looking forward to implementation of the ordinance. Harrelson said the LGBTQ community was invited to be heard via listening sessions in the development of this ordinance, but communication should be more open and frequent.

“I challenge the commission to continue the conversation outside of Pride Month and election years,” Harrelson said. “And I encourage our own community to continue to show up and be heard so that we do not get pushed to the side, and we are at the forefront of conversations, because we do exist, we are here, we’re not leaving, and we’re definitely not able to change.”

Harrelson and Johnson agreed that establishing a human rights committee made up of Athens citizens is a necessary supplement to the ordinance. “Having the government be the sole facilitator of it [responding to complaints] negates the fact that we’re wanting representation in the first place when it comes to these issues, so by having a committee to look at these complaints that is comprised of the marginalized people directly affected by it is the right way to go,” Harrelson said.

That task is next on the commission’s agenda, according to Wright. The commission is expected to consider a proposal for a human rights committee within the next two months.