The Assembly of God headquarters is located in Springfield, Missouri and recently General Superintendent, George O. Wood wrote a letter to the Springfield city counsel expressing concerns about no religious exemptions in a proposed ordinance, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Wood also believes that the proposed ordinance would make churches in Springfield liable for discrimination against job applicants, prospective tenants, and customers. The letter stated that no exemption is made in the new proposed ordinance for churches to discriminate in areas of housing and public accommodations. He requested previsions allowing religious organizations preference in matters of hiring be included in the ordinance.
The city of Springfield issued a response on Wednesday which said Wood’s letter was not received in city offices nor was it entirely accurate.
“A religious exemption (for housing) has been on the books almost 30 years. Nothing has changed,” City Attorney Dan Wichmer said.
On Thursday, the city made a clarification.
"The City of Springfield acknowledges that there is not an explicit exemption for religious entities in the public accommodations section of the City's existing non-discrimination ordinance. To clarify why there isn't an explicit exemption in the existing or proposed ordinances: it is the City attorney's opinion that the church and religious-based entities are not public accommodations, so no exemption is necessary."
The city even stated that an exemption for churches to show preference to those sharing the same religious views in the proposed ordinance does exist in the city’s existing non-discrimination ordinance.
“It is not referenced in the proposal City Council is considering because the language in that section of the decades-old ordinance would not change, Wichmer said.”
The city plans to add the new exemption, which goes beyond Federal law, concerning employment and adding protections against discrimination based sexual orientation and gender identity.
Wichmer said the language allowing religious organizations to show preference to people of the same religion is based on language from existing federal employment law contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
“Bottom line, the religious exemptions are alive and well,” he said.
Wood’s letter argues that this is inadequate, but in comparison, the Missouri Human Rights Act and a proposed Federal law, filed by Congressman Barney Frank in 2007, which never passed, was allegedly more vague and would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Title VII doesn’t really apply here … because it does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation,” said Rich Hammar, legal counsel for the Assemblies of God. “So the closest comparable, to me, on the federal level would be the Frank bill.”
Frank’s proposal and state law does allow religious exemptions concerning employment and state law exempts religious organizations concerning housing, but neither bill allows religious institutions to discriminate concerning public accommodations.
Hammar — to whom Wood referred questions regarding the legal statements in the letter — said he needed time to review the city ordinance related to housing before commenting on that part of Wood’s letter.
“It’s really a complex issue,” he said.
The city counsel’s response said the existing city code covers public accommodations, but the reference does not include such language stating that. The city counsel will hear more than a dozen speakers on August 27 concerning this proposed ordinance.