Protections sought for gays

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

Snohomish County employees who suffer workplace discrimination because of their sexual orientation could soon turn to the county for protection.

County Executive Bob Drewel on Monday asked the county council to approve changes that would expand anti-discrimination rules for county employees to include sexual orientation, among other things.

"Clearly we want to assure that discriminatory treatment is prohibited for all of those who work for Snohomish County," Drewel said.

The proposal received a mixed response from county council members, who are scheduled to vote Wednesday at 9 a.m. on when to hold a hearing about Drewel’s proposal.

Outgoing Council Chairman Dave Somers welcomed the change as a way to bring the county’s anti-discrimination stance up to date. People’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be grounds for treating them differently in the workplace, he said.

"I think it’s a moral issue that we ought to not discriminate against people," he said.

But new councilman John Koster, a Republican, objected to the measure partly on moral grounds because it would extend anti-discrimination practices to homosexuals.

"I think it encourages a behavior that isn’t necessarily healthy or moral," he said.

Sexual orientation is one of several categories that would gain protection against discrimination for hiring, promotions and other workplace decisions for county employees. Military veteran and citizenship status also would be covered.

Sexual orientation protections, however, have sparked heated debates elsewhere. Gay-rights groups and others have pushed for the expanded rules, while some conservative groups have opposed them.

County Republicans also objected to the hurried schedule for hearing the bill, charging it was an effort to push it through before the council majority switches from Democrat to Republican in January.

"I don’t know where he’s been for the last 12 years because this particular part of the code has been this way for 14 years," said Gary Nelson, the council’s senior Republican, referring to Drewel. "All of a sudden in the last month of 2001 it becomes a priority and they’ve got to rush it through."

Democrats control the council 3-2, but that will be reversed when two new councilmen take their seats in January.

Somers, a Democrat who lost his November re-election bid, on Monday turned down Nelson’s request to send the proposal to a council committee, which would slow the process.

"It’s something they asked me if we could do it by the end the year," Somers said of the executive’s office. "It had been in the works for a while."

Drewel said his administration had planned to update the ordinance for some time and had spoken with council leadership at least six weeks ago about the changes.

The issue of sexual orientation gained added attention recently when union negotiators brought it up with county officials during contract talks, said Mark Knudsen, who investigates workplace discrimination complaints by county employees.

Those same negotiations also resulted in health benefits being offered to domestic partners of same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Previously, only married partners were eligible.

The county hasn’t received any complaints from employees about discrimination based on sexual orientation, Knudsen said. But people may simply not be reporting problems because county ordinances are silent on the issue, he said.

"We’re not trying to promote a particular lifestyle. We’re just drawing a line that we’re not allowing our employees to be harassed or discriminated on that basis," he said.

Twelve other Washington governments have similar anti-discrimination protections, including King, Clallam and Clark counties, and the cities of Seattle, Spokane and Vancouver, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights organization.

Nelson and Koster also raised concerns that listing veteran and citizenship status could further complicate the picture. For example, Nelson questioned whether the change could enable non-veterans to object to county policies extending hiring preferences to veterans.

Knudsen said the policy was designed to protect veterans who have sometimes been the target of prejudice.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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