After initially doubling down, Mobile County Treasurer Phil Benson has apologized for Facebook comments he made that were deemed offensive to the LGBT community, but the controversy he stirred is still creating waves in the community and for local officials.
As Lagniappe has reported, Benson made a controversial comment on a June 12 article shared by the Mobile County Republican Party’s Facebook page about a Colorado bakery owner who was recently sued for refusing to bake a gender-transition cake because it violated his beliefs.
Benson wrote: “This poor guy needs to move to a place he is wanted. Freaking queers have gotten too much sympathy. A real abomination.” Local news stories about the comment soon went national as Benson doubled down on his stance, telling news outlets that “little groups” like the LGBTQ community had gotten “too much power” in the United States.
Since then, the local Republican party, statewide GOP leaders and all three Mobile County Commissioners have distanced themselves from Benson — calling his comments “divisive,” “intolerant” and not reflective of “the majority of Mobile County citizens.”
On Monday, shortly after several LGBTQ activists addressed the issue at a commission meeting he did not attend, Benson issued a public apology on his personal Facebook page.
“My personal belief is that, while the practice of homosexuality goes against the clear teaching of scripture, I apologize to anyone that I may have offended for my mean-spirited choice of words,” he wrote. “Jesus teaches us to love all people, even when we don’t agree with their lifestyle.”
At the meeting, prior to Benson’s apology, a number of speakers addressed Benson’s comments, with some calling for him to “apologize and educate himself about his community” or resign. Reactions to his apology on social media have so far been mixed in the LGBTQ community.
In response, Commission President Connie Hudson again made it clear that the county commission has no authority over Benson, who is elected to his position by the voters. She also said: “You can’t legislate what’s in the minds and hearts of people and what they say.”
As of Monday, Commissioner Jerry Carl had not weighed in on the issue, but after the meeting he released a statement clarifying that he doesn’t “support, condone or tolerate” Benson’s comments, which he said were conveyed in a “negative and derogatory manner.”
Carl, who is currently campaigning for the House seat that will be vacated by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile, in 2020, said he didn’t agree with Benson, but stopped short of condemnation.
“[He] has a right to the First Amendment, and what he did was on his personal page on his own time,” Carl said. “I can’t condemn a man if he wants to put himself in that position, and Phil’s in a bad position that he’s going to have to figure out how to get himself out of it.”
Benson aside, though, some of the speakers at yesterday’s commission meeting also raised concerns about a lack of discrimination protections for local LGBTQ individuals.
Kim McKeand, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Searcy v. Strange case that legalized same-sex marriage in Alabama, asked the county officials to consider adopting an ordinance to protect LGBTQ individuals from housing and workplace discrimination.
“We want one of you to please stand up and be a sponsor for a non-discrimination ordinance that says we won’t lose our jobs for being gay, we won’t lose our houses because we lost our jobs for being and gay and that we will not be denied public services,” McKeand said. “Is there anyone of you today who will stand up and do what’s right for Mobile? Because we are one of the most diverse cities in the state, and we should reflect that.”
Hudson said that “as a creature of the Alabama legislature,” the county has no authority to enact the kind of an ordinance that could assess penalties to private entities that discriminate, but she did say its own policies for employees and contractors bar any kind of discrimination.
County Attorney Jay Ross echoed those sentiments and said under Alabama law, cities have much more leeway to pass ordinances that provide for legal penalties. At least two cities in the state, Birmingham and Montevallo, have adopted ordinances specifically criminalizing LGBTQ discrimination, but there’s been some debate about how effective they’ve been.
If they couldn’t help directly, McKeand asked all three commissioners if they would be willing to “stand with” the local LGBTQ community if it pushed the city of Mobile or the Alabama Legislature to consider using its authority to enact similar protections. None gave an answer.
After the meeting, McKeand and other activists said they felt “sidestepped” and plan to address the same issues before the Mobile City Council in the future. However, council rules did not allow anyone from the group to speak during the most recent meeting on Tuesday, June 25.
City spokesman George Talbot said Mobile’s legal staff is already researching Birmingham’s ordinance. He also said the city’s current ordinances regarding discrimination are in compliance with state and federal laws but don’t include specific language about sexual orientation.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.
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