Gay rights advocates have scored another victory in a small eastern Kentucky town as Berea prepares to expand anti-discrimination protections for city employees.
Mayor Steve Connelly announced this week that he will sign an executive order banning discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation in hiring, firing and benefits for the city's 130 employees.
"Personally I think it's the right thing to do, and in terms of our city, we were founded in 1853 with the idea that people were going to be treated equal," Connelly said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. The move follows the drafting of a new gay rights ordinance in the tiny Appalachian town of Vicco that went into effect last month. Vicco's law bans discrimination against gays in employment and housing in the town of about 330 people.
Berea has considered a similar citywide anti-discrimination ordinance. In 2011, the city council reestablished the city's Human Rights Commission to gather information and investigate the issue.
Connelly said he would likely sign the executive order for city employees in the next week or so. The city council is also reviewing whether Berea should offer same-sex partner benefits to city employees, he said.
"My assessment is that (gay rights protection) is a historical trend and I would rather Berea be a leader than a latecomer" Connelly said.
The city of Berea, nestled near the western edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, has a history of progressive action on civil rights, dating to the mid-19th century. Berea College became the only racially integrated college in the South upon its founding in 1855. And about a decade ago, the school extended benefits to domestic partners of employees, including same-sex partners.
Several Kentucky cities have seen a push for expansions of gay rights, but Berea is likely the closest to enacting a citywide anti-discrimination ban, said Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, a gay advocacy group.
"Berea is the closest to getting one," he said. "The city has never taken a step backwards, they have consistently moved forward."
Vicco became the fourth city in Kentucky and one of the smallest towns in America to enact citywide bans on discrimination against gays in employment and housing when its city council approved the measure last month. Covington, Lexington and Louisville also have the citywide protections.
Hartman said there are also grassroots movements going on in Richmond, Shelbyville, Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, Morehead and Danville.
He said interest in Kentucky communities has exploded since he took the job at the Fairness Campaign four years ago.
"The difference between then and now in Kentucky has just been night and day in terms of the grassroots movements on the ground," Hartman said.