By Charles Sercombe
The issue of gay rights was once again addressed by the Hamtramck City Council on Tuesday.
In one of the more stranger votes taken, a so-called majority of two councilmembers voted to support a proposed federal hate crimes prevention law commonly referred to as the “Matthew Shepard Act.”
How can just two votes be good enough to pass a resolution?
It took City Clerk Ed Norris a few hours to untangle the question, but after talking with some experts on parliamentary procedures, it’s legitimate.
Here’s how the meeting took shape: Councilmember Shahab Ahmed and Mayor Karen Majewski were absent from the meeting, leaving councilmembers Scott Klein, Cathie Gordon, Alan Shulgon, Abdul Algazali and Catrina Stackpoole to make a decision.
The vote took a twist when Councilmember Algazali left the council chambers shortly before discussion on the issue started. He returned to the chambers after the vote was taken. With Algazali out of the council chamber, that left four councilmembers to vote. As it turned out, Councilmember Gordon abstained and Shulgon voted against it. Councilmembers Klein and Stackpoole voted in favor of it.
City Clerk Norris said that because there was still a quorum, the majority vote stands.
The federal legislation would make it a hate crime to assault someone because they are gay or transgendered or because of their sexual orientation. The bill was recently reintroduced to the Senate and had been languishing in Congress for several years.
It’s now up to a committee to hammer out the final bill. President Obama has said it is one of his goals to sign the legislation into law.
Hamtramck’s support of the law is largely symbolic but does add another voice in support.
Gordon said she abstained because she was “confused” over what was in the legislation.
“I wanted to postpone it to get more time to study it,” Gordon said in a telephone interview the day after the meeting.
But then she told a reporter she “agrees” with the law.
An abstention vote is usually used when there is a conflict of interest for an elected official.
Councilmember Shulgon was the lone vote against last year’s “Natural Rights” law that the council adopted. That law was interchangeably labeled a gay rights ordinance. The adoption of the law became an immediate controversy in the city and sparked a heated campaign against it as well as for it.
Shulgon said he voted against supporting the Matthew Shepard Act because it’s basically the same legislation that Hamtramck voters rejected last year. He said he was against Hamtramck’s legislation because “I didn’t think the community was ready for it.”
As for whether he personally supports gay rights, Shulgon said “We all have the same equal rights.”
Councilmember Algazali said he didn’t realize what was in the Hamtramck ordinance last year and later came out against it. The issue eventually led to a ballot proposal and attracted outside interests for both sides.
Conservative Catholics and Muslims teamed together to defeat the proposal, which lost in a landside.
The federal bill would expand beyond an existing federal hate crime bill that doesn’t include gays and is effective only on federal property or with federally protected activities, such as voting or going to school.
It would also allow federal authorities to investigate hate crimes where local agencies refuse to take action.
Matthew Shepard was a gay man who was tortured and killed in 1998 by two men. Witnesses said he was killed because he was gay.