Growing tensions over a plan to protect gays from discrimination in the city of Columbia have led to the resignation of a consultant city leaders hired to help develop a human-rights ordinance.
Christine Johnson, a lesbian and advocate of gay rights, said she quit because City Councilman Cameron Runyan had obstructed her efforts to help create the proposed ordinance.
Johnson said in an April 10 resignation letter that Runyan helped set up meetings with church groups to discuss ending her city contract. Runyan made misleading statements to church leaders, as well as misleading comments on a Columbia radio program concerning the proposed city human-rights ordinance, she said in her letter to City Manager Teresa Wilson.
“Councilman Runyan’s preoccupation with my sexual orientation is a direct obstruction to my contractual work,” Johnson’s resignation letter said.
But Runyan, who has been criticized by some for his conservative views on gay rights, said Johnson’s decision to quit the $19,500 consulting job was her own choice. He said he didn’t facilitate meetings in February and March that Johnson referred to in the letter. And his criticism is focused on the ordinance, not Johnson, Runyan said.
“What she wants to do is make this about her and me, but it’s not about her and me,” Runyan said. “It’s about an aggressive overreach by the government.”
Up for debate is a plan to establish a city human-rights commission that would look into potentially discriminatory practices involving city departments and make recommendations to City Council for improvement. The seven-member advisory commission would examine any patterns of racial and age discrimination.
But it also would look at other forms of discrimination, including bias against gays and transgender people – and that has irked a fundamentalist church group. Johnson’s decision to quit follows months of complaints from members of a group that calls itself the Christian Coalition, an interdenominational organization made up mostly of African-American churches.
That group opposes including references to gays and transgender people in the proposed city ordinance to protect human rights. The proposed ordinance has not yet been voted on by City Council.
During a Feb. 26 coalition meeting at a Broad River Road church, the group listed on its agenda “non-renewal of Christine Johnson’s contract.” The agenda includes a section on the selection of Johnson as a city consultant. It lists her contract and mentions “built-in bias” and asks, “Are we paying someone to work against our interest?”
Bishop Eric Davis, a group leader, conceded Wednesday that the coalition wanted Johnson to resign but said the coalition’s main goal was to make sure the ordinance does not include gay and transgender people. Davis said the coalition worried that Johnson was unduly influencing how the ordinance was drafted.
The city hired Johnson in December 2014. The contract was to begin in January and last six months. Her payment was not to exceed $19,500.
“Christine Johnson is not only a practicing lesbian, but she’s an advocate, an LGBT advocate,” Davis said. “So from a Christian perspective, our question was, ‘Is that built-in bias?’”
Davis said he believes homosexuality is a sin and said he has broad support from African-American churches representing 100,000 members.
The Feb. 26 meeting of church representatives, which also included Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis and Leona Plaugh, occurred at about the same time Bishop Eric Davis and Runyan took to the airwaves to denounce the law. During an extensive radio interview about the proposed law, homosexuality and transgender issues, Runyan, Eric Davis and another pastor said they want to protect families.
Ordinances like the one proposed in Columbia are being passed around the country, but that doesn’t make them right, Runyan said during the WGCV radio interview. Including gender identity discrimination in the law could allow boys to use the same bathrooms as girls, according to a recording of the interview.
“That is exactly what is happening all around the country where these ordinances are passed,” he said. “ I will stand up against anyone who is pushing this kind of moral revolution, to protect the citizens of this city, to protect our children and our park facilities, to protect our girls and our boys, from the very real worry of endangerment if this law passes.”
Runyan said the law would allow the city to investigate bias secretly, which also is a concern.
Johnson, a former legislator in Utah, said opposition from Runyan is a sad story that has jeopardized passage of a law that could help people who feel the sting of discrimination.
“I regret that the ordinance, despite support of council members who understand the prevalence of discrimination in our community, will not move forward at this time due to closed-minded and disingenuous actions,” she said in her letter. “Perhaps one must first be a victim of discrimination in order to see discrimination in their lives.”
Johnson declined to discuss the matter in detail, referring questions to her April 10 resignation letter. But she did tell The State newspaper that she believes Runyan’s attitude remains a concern.
“Councilman Runyan’s behavior and intolerant objections to a human-rights ordinance and a human-rights commission exemplifies the need for such an ordinance and commission in the city of Columbia,” Johnson told The State.
Johnson, who is from Charleston, now is a consultant in Columbia. Johnson formerly worked with a mediation center in Thailand and as vice president for external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. She also is a former executive director of the Columbia-based South Carolina Equality.