On January 27, 2020, Golf Manor had reason to celebrate. The Village Council of the small bedroom community—eight miles north of Cincinnati with a population of less than 4,000—passed language that made Golf Manor the 28th jurisdiction in Ohio to offer an all-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
The legislative action came after a year of work with both supporters of the protections as well as those who expressed significant reservations, the latter largely being voices from the Orthodox Jewish community. Although not many residents of Golf Manor are Orthodox, the village is home to Cincinnati Hebrew Day School and Golf Manor Synagogue (Congregation Agudas Israel), the oldest surviving Orthodox synagogue in the Cincinnati area. They are the only religious institutions and places of worship in the village.
At issue with the ordinance was the extent to which religious exemptions would be granted. For example, was there a difference between firing a lesbian religious studies teacher and a lesbian janitor at Cincinnati Hebrew Day School? Though their job functions are markedly different with respect to religious responsibility, representatives from the Orthodox community asserted no difference, even as these arguments were not consistent with all federal and state law.
“We simply want a complete religious exemption,” Rabbi A. D. Motzen, the national director for state relations, Agudath Israel of America, told The American Israelite last November.
After numerous public meetings, the language passed by the Village Council repeatedly acknowledged religious freedoms, while also establishing a baseline for these exemptions. From the section on employment:
Nothing contained in this chapter shall be deemed to prohibit a religious or denominational institution from selecting or rejecting applicants and employees on the basis of the applicant’s or employee’s conformance with the institution’s religious to denominational principles for positions involving the religious functions or activities of the institution.
Similar language was crafted in the sections related to housing and public accommodations.
Soon after the new language was approved in January, Golf Manor households were visited by canvassers who successfully collected enough signatures to put the ordinance up for a vote in the November election. Voters in Golf Manor will now have an opportunity to weigh in on “Issue 10”: a “Yes” vote preserves the protections while a “No” vote will repeal the language.
With the support of Equality Ohio—a statewide LGBTQ+ organization that has been supporting this nondiscrimination language through the entirety of this years-long process—proponents of Issue 10 have set up a PAC to provide information and voter mobilization in an effort to “support equality and inclusion in Golf Manor.”
Multiple sources shared that appeals were made to Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to support preserving the nondiscrimination language, but that the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ rights organization has refused to get involved because the language in the passed ordinance provides some—though not complete—exemptions for religious institutions. When reached out for comment for this piece, a representative from HRC responded that they “cannot provide a comment for [this]story.”
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Golf Manor Mayor Stefan Densmore and Vice-Mayor Matthew Boettcher about the efforts on both sides of this issue, the allegations of money pouring from outside sources to fight the ordinance, and what Golf Manor has to teach the rest of Ohio about inclusivity.
After the January vote approving the ordinance, how quickly did you have a sense that it would be challenged?
Boettcher: Once we passed the legislation, there were questions immediately posed to our village solicitor as to what our charter says needs to happen to put a referendum on the ballot. [Those opposed to the ordinance] had to get a percentage of people who turned out for the last gubernatorial election. They were able to get the necessary signatures using people to canvas who aren’t residents of this community. We heard from our supporters that the people coming to canvas were not telling the truth about the ordinance, which is not a big surprise. The spin was that the nondiscrimination language was a total attack on religious liberty, which is just not the case.
Densmore: [Canvassers] actually came to my door. I did not sign it because there was a lot of intellectual dishonesty presented at my door about what the ordinance says and does. Throughout this process, we meticulously went through and made adjustments to make sure the language wasn’t going to be used to give people a hard time. That’s not the spirit of the ordinance. When we actually had the hearing in June, [opponents of the ordinance]presented the signatures of people who wanted the ordinance overturned. Well that’s not true. Those were signatures of people who wanted the ordinance to go to a vote.
Boettcher: At that point, we had to either send it to the ballot or totally repeal it in its entirety. There wasn’t an opportunity to amend the existing language. I was so frustrated with how far we had come to have that decision to make and didn’t want to start back at zero. There was a lot of discussion about starting back at the beginning… to “make it right.”
What does “make it right” even mean in this context? What do opponents of the approved ordinance actually want?
Boettcher: They want religious institutions to be completely exempt from the ordinance. I thought we had made a lot of progress with the hearings, with all the hours we spent. We had these really good debates. I myself learned a ton, but it got to a boiling point where opponents only wanted the total religious exemption or it was unacceptable.
Densmore: Ultimately, I felt confident we had addressed all of those concerns in the year we went through this line by line in a public forum. We discussed what each and every sentence of the ordinance meant. I was assured from legal counsel that the concerns that were being raised—not by the whole Jewish community here in Golf Manor but by some folks who don’t live here, and are carrying an agenda from outside of Golf Manor—it wasn’t like likely we were going to have these scary things [opponents to the ordinance]were talking about with this ordinance.
Boettcher: My concern as an openly gay man is equality in employment and other areas. Twice in my life, I have been discriminated against as a gay man in housing. The orthodox Jewish institutions in Golf Manor own a decent amount of property that they let their senior citizens live in during the Sabbath because they’re not able to drive and have to walk to synagogue. If they were to ever rent out the real estate to nonreligious members, what type of discrimination would those people face if a religious institution is entering into public commerce? If you’re entering public commerce, you would have to abide by the same regulations and laws to which everyone has to abide. It’s just not fair to have a full religious exemption.
There have been allegations of influence and funds coming in from outside of Golf Manor supporting those seeking to overturn the ordinance. Is that something you have seen?
Boettcher: I’ve heard rumors of it. We just spotted our first “No on 10” yard sign. We’re getting ready to launch our “Yes on 10” signs in response. The gentleman who represents the Jewish community is not a resident of Golf Manor and works for a national Jewish rights group. [Opponents of the ordinance] had a lot of help from Judge Hartman, who is a very conservative judge running here in a local election. American Family Association, a Southern Poverty Law Center designated hate group attorney showed up at a hearing. So it’s not just a Golf Manor representation. It wouldn’t surprise me that funds are coming in from the outside.
Densmore: I’m one of these folks who doesn’t believe that this opposition is monolithic. There is definitely a piece of this with folks with a national agenda. On the side of not having the ordinance was the concern of whether in an Orthodox Jewish school a transgender 5-year-old can be admitted, and that the result would be a media circus. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but if it does, we’ll deal with that. There were concerns that were shared with the Orthodox Jewish population and it got a lot of people fearful.
What do you want people to know about Golf Manor and this ordinance?
Densmore: One of the things we were doing early on was to get people to understand that it’s not just an LGBTQ+ ordinance. It’s a nondiscrimination ordinance. Anyone who feels they were discriminated against in Golf Manor doesn’t need to go to Columbus or Washington D.C. They can walk down the street in Golf Manor, access resources, and consult with folks about what remedies exist. And to the extent that there is something they can pursue, we will do that.
Boettcher: I’m hoping that people will go to the ballot, look at the legislation, and look at the ordinance. It doesn’t just protect the LGBTQ community, but it protects everyone. This is an inclusivity for everyone bill.
[The Buckeye Flame reached out to Rabbi Motzen via for comment and this story will be updated pending his response.]