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May 26, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Free speech or civil rights? Free speech or civil rights? (May 26, 2004)

Debate over HRC abstention on gay rights intensifies

by Bill D'Agostino

The controversy surrounding a proposed Palo Alto resolution in support of same-sex marriage continued last week as Lakiba Pittman, chair of the Human Relations Commission, questioned whether Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell could still serve as the council's liaison to the commission.

Last week, as first reported on PaloAltoOnline.com, Cordell called for Pittman to consider stepping down from the commission after Pittman abstained from voting on a resolution that would oppose a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Cordell's harsh criticism of Pittman's vote evoked similarly tough words from the human relations commissioner last week.

"I understand her passion around that issue, but that assignment (being liaison) did not give her the ability to decide who should serve on the commission," Pittman said. "And we need a liaison who can talk to us."

In one sense, Cordell "has discriminated against me by saying that because I abstained I discriminate -- that I am for discrimination," Pittman said. "To me, that's a big leap that cannot be justified, not by my life as evidence."

Meanwhile, Cordell, a first-year councilwoman and a former judge, will personally implement a "litmus test" for residents to get appointed onto the human relations commission.

When the next commissioner applicants are being interviewed, Cordell will ask if they are against "all forms" of discrimination. If they say no, Cordell will not vote to appoint them, and will ask fellow council members to follow suit.

Pittman, who supported Cordell's 2003 campaign for council, was the only commissioner not to vote in favor of the resolution at the commission's May 13 meeting.

Pittman said she would not step down. She did not explain her non-vote during the meeting, but told a Weekly reporter afterward she was torn between her Baptist Christian views on marriage and her secular support of human rights.

Cordell did not speak against Pittman's abstention until the following week.

Mayor Bern Beecham disagreed that Pittman should step down. Pittman "has done nothing" to weaken the city's anti-discrimination laws, he said. Beecham also said he would not replace Cordell as the council's liaison.

Pittman works as the manager of global diversity and inclusion programs for Agilent Technologies, and is in her second term and fifth year as commissioner.

Pittman was upset Cordell didn't speak with her directly about the issue until after making her concerns public. The two often speak about issues surrounding the commission, she noted.

"So it would have been easy for her to contact me, but she hasn't said anything to me. ... Instead she went to the press, and I feel very discouraged and disappointed," Pittman said.

Cordell's denunciation of Pittman's non-vote wrought a vigorous debate in the community.

Kathy Levinson, a lesbian who married her lifelong partner in San Francisco's City Hall on Feb. 12, agreed with Cordell's assessment.

"I don't see how you can ethically be appointed to that commission, or sit as its chair, if you know that you hold beliefs that are discriminatory," said Levinson, the former CEO of E-Trade.

Other city boards and commissions, and other citizens, have a right to their opinions, but human relation commissioners work for "human rights for all." In 1995, Levinson successfully pushed the Palo Alto City Council to form a "domestic partner registry."

The San Jose Mercury News editorialized on the issue last week, calling Cordell's statements "disturbing."

"Human relations commissions serve two purposes: to promote equal rights, and to provide a forum for the community to debate issues of discrimination. Cordell's litmus test would stifle debate by turning the commission into a bland, predictable group that didn't encourage dissenting points of view," the paper wrote.

Even though Pittman was alone on the commission, the paper added, "there are many people in the community who share her views, and they have a right to be heard. The human relations commission is supposed to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. That includes the right to disagree."

Cordell said the editorial missed the point. "That the paper does not view gay rights as a civil rights issue, saddens me," Cordell wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly. "I doubt that the Mercury News would assert that a commissioner, who, for example, espoused a view against interracial marriage based on religious grounds, would take the position that this was a free speech issue.

"I continue to maintain that this is not a free speech issue," Cordell wrote. "This is a civil rights issue."

Cordell said the fact that she herself is gay is "totally irrelevant" to her statements.

"Had I been straight, I would have taken the same position," she said. "That's my history."

Ironically, Pittman said that, in hindsight, she could have supported the resolution. "But the bigger point to me is that I can abstain if I feel I need to."

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com


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