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New Ross law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity

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While federal laws prohibit nearly all forms of discrimination, there are some areas where the protections fall short.

On Monday, Ross commissioners plugged holes in the federal law by making it a crime to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The ordinance, which was approved by a 5-2 vote, does not single out sexual orientation and gender identity for protections. Rather, it is a sweeping measure that adds to the state and federal anti-discrimination laws that already exist.

Commissioners Rick Avon and Grace Stanko voted to oppose the measure. Commissioners Jeremy Shaffer and Jack Betkowski were absent from the meeting.

During previous public discussions about the ordinance, Commission President Steve Korbel, who crafted the measure, said the law is an effort to establish a legal baseline for how people should be treated and is not being enacted in response to complaints about discrimination.

Korbel said the ordinance also can serve as a welcome message to future residents and businesses.

It is “the civil rights issue of our time,” Korbel said prior to Monday’s vote. “Folks who fall into this category deserve the same protections as anybody else.”

To follow up on discrimination complaints, the new ordinance creates an Equal Opportunity Board consisting of five Ross residents.

The board will have the power to issue a cease-and-desist order and fines of up to $600. The victim also will have the ability to file a lawsuit seeking additional compensation from the perpetrator.

In cases involving housing discrimination, violators could be fined under the federal Fair Housing Act, which calls for a fine of $10,000 for the first offense, $25,000 for a second offense and $50,000 for subsequent offenses.

Avon said while he opposes discrimination, he is concerned about the law’s ramifications.

“Let me be clear about this because it’s a sensitive subject,” he said. “I do not discriminate against anybody. Every person on earth is on equal standing.”

But Avon questioned whether the law could open the municipality to legal action by someone who disagrees with the findings made by the Equal Opportunity Board.

“Is this going to come back on us?” he asked. Avon also balked at creating a board without first determining how much its operation will cost the township.

Korbel said the new board will be guided by a solicitor and that the determinations it makes will be no different than decisions made by other boards and commissions, which can be appealed in court.

Since the law is new, the township will have to estimate how much to budget to cover expenses for the all-volunteer board.

“It depends on how many complaints we get,” he said. ‘We’ll have to make our best guess estimate and see as we go.”

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368 or [email protected] or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.

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