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Charleston to weigh anti-discrimination ordinance

City would be second in state after Columbia

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Charleston City Council will be weighing new anti-discrimination ordinances next week, providing fresh support for minorities in regards to housing and business.

The city has an existing non-discrimination ordinance for renting and selling property, protecting people from abuses based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin. The proposed changes would add sexual orientation and age to the protected classes.

The city would also introduce new protections for all of these groups that would prohibit discrimination in publicly-accessible businesses like hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and stores.

According to the proposed ordinance, "Discrimination means any direct or indirect act or practice of exclusion, distinction, restriction, segregation, limitation, refusal, denial, or any other act or practice of differentiation or preference."

Columbia passed similar ordinances in early 2008. Through a $25,000 grant, Columbia's nonprofit South Carolina Equality Coalition began a statewide effort to expand municipal anti-discrimination measures earlier this year.

Ray Drew, the coalition's executive director, says gay-inclusive local ordinances almost always pre-date any state-level reforms.

"The truth is any type of legislative body is slow and usually the last to act," he says.

Drew also notes that finding a local advocate is important in getting this type of ordinance on the radar. Local aid in educating council members on the importance of these ordinances came from the nonprofit Alliance for Full Acceptance, which has advocated for the gay community in Charleston for more than a decade, as well as help from the Log Cabin Republicans and the Stonewall Democrats — both partisan gay groups — and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"There are going to be places we go in this state where we're not going to have that kind of support," Drew says.

Alliance Executive Director Warren Redman-Gress says these new laws will send a message to visitors that Charleston is welcoming of all people. Gay and lesbian visitors call AFFA occasionally to ask whether Charleston is friendly.

"Without this ordinance, we could tell them to come to Charleston, but we couldn't say whether they'll be booted out of their hotel," Redman-Gress say. "This ordinance protects people from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave."

Local gay rights ordinances have faced challenges in the past from conservatives, but a broader acceptance of gays and lesbians, and a better understanding of the challenges they face in housing and elsewhere have made these efforts a little easier.

Earlier this week, Salt Lake City passed ordinances that went even further than those proposed in Charleston — including employment protections. The measure received unanimous support from city leaders, due in some part to the support of the Mormon Church, which has been the strongest opponent of gay marriage rights nationwide.

"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Michael Otterson, the director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told CBS News.

Teaser photo by flickr user Dominic

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