On September 26, 2017, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance that makes it a crime for any entity doing business in the city to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or familial status. The ordinance passed unanimously and is the first of its kind in Alabama. Enforceable through the municipal courts, the local law applies to housing, public accommodations, public education, and employment. It carves out two exceptions: one for religious corporations and one for employers with bona fide affirmative action plans or seniority systems.
In a separate measure passed during the same meeting, the city created a local human rights commission to receive, investigate, and attempt conciliation of complaints. The commission has no enforcement authority. Citizens who believe they have suffered unlawful discrimination must appear before a magistrate and swear out a warrant or summons. The entity or individual will not receive a ticket but will face a trial before a municipal judge in the city’s courts. Ordinance violations are classified as misdemeanor offenses, and those found guilty of discrimination will face fines of up to $500. Alabama municipalities have no authority under state law to create civil remedies for ordinance violations, therefore, an employer would not be required to reinstate an employee or provide back pay if it were found guilty of violating the ordinance in municipal court.
Because the city’s courts, which are courts of criminal jurisdiction, operate much more quickly than federal civil courts do, one would expect that a guilty verdict under the Birmingham ordinance likely could be used as evidence of discrimination in a federal civil claim that is almost sure to follow.
Although the city’s mayor must sign the ordinance for it to become effective, the mayor has announced he will sign it into law immediately. The city also expects that the Alabama Legislature will challenge the ordinance.