Gwinnett commission passes nondiscrimination ordinance on split vote

Balloons spell out “PRIDE” at Gwinnett County’s first-ever Pride Month celebration, which was held at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in June 2021.

Credit: FILE/Gwinnett Daily Post

Credit: FILE/Gwinnett Daily Post

Balloons spell out “PRIDE” at Gwinnett County’s first-ever Pride Month celebration, which was held at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in June 2021.

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners recently enacted a nondiscrimination ordinance requiring businesses in unincorporated Gwinnett to provide equal access to employment and public accommodations on the basis of certain factors tied to identity.

“Protecting civil liberties is a great way to start Pride Month,” District 1 Commissioner Kirkland Carden said last week before the vote.

Unincorporated Gwinnett, with a population of about 700,000, is believed to be the largest local jurisdiction in the state to have such a law. The city of Atlanta has a nondiscrimination ordinance for businesses, and a few cities in DeKalb County in recent years passed similar ordinances.

Gwinnett’s ordinance passed on a 4-1 partisan vote, with Republican District 4 Commissioner Matthew Holtkamp dissenting. He co-owns Suwanee-based Holtkamp Heating & Air with his wife, Suzanne.

Holtkamp said an employee who worked for them for a month made discrimination claims that were proven false but ended up costing the business $20,000 in legal fees.

“We need to make it more fair to all parties and have some protections in there for businesses,” he said.

To allow for a period of public education, complaints will not be accepted about any alleged acts of discrimination that occur before Jan. 1, 2025. The ordinance only applies when state and federal nondiscrimination laws do not — for instance, when a business does not employ enough people to fall under those laws, County Attorney Mike Ludwiczak said.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sex or other genetic information — race, color, national origin, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, age, marital status, familial status including pregnancy, disability, military or veteran status, religion, political affiliation, immigration status or homelessness.

It specifically prohibits businesses from refusing to employ people based on those factors or discriminating against them in pay or other conditions of employment. It also says businesses cannot refuse to offer “goods, services, facilities and accommodations” based on those factors.

The ordinance includes a number of exemptions, including for religious organizations performing noncommercial activities and for private schools. It allows for military and veteran discounts and age limits up to 21. It does not require any changes that would necessitate a building permit.

“This is really filling those small gaps at the local level, so it’s just making sure we’re comprehensive and clear, showing that, again, we do value diversity in all forms here in Gwinnett County,” District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku said.

People who want to allege a violation of the ordinance can file a complaint to the Gwinnett County Attorney, who will appoint an outside lawyer with experience in constitutional or employment law to review it, Ludwiczak said. The attorney could dismiss the complaint. But, if it has merit, the attorney will meet with both parties to attempt an informal resolution.

If that fails, the county planning department can issue a citation to be litigated in Recorder’s Court, like other county code violations. Potential penalties include a fine of $100 to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail.

As a protection against abuse of the process, anyone who has already filed two complaints within two years that were dismissed must pay $50 to file every complaint thereafter, Ludwiczak said.