In a move that’s raised eyebrows across the political spectrum, the president of the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter has given a board appointment to an arch-conservative legal activist who has a history of working on anti-gay rights causes.
The appointment involves Hyde Park attorney Chris Finney, perhaps best known as the person who wrote Article 12, a charter amendment passed by voters in 1993 that prohibited city officials from passing any laws that included sexual orientation as a protected class.
Among his past comments in defending Article 12, Finney once said that landlords shouldn’t be legally required to rent to gay or lesbian tenants if they didn’t want to do so, a remark that some critics compared to people who refused public accommodations or services to African Americans before the 1960s.
Strangely, Finney’s appointment as the Cincinnati NAACP’s “chair of legal redress” occurred at almost exactly the same time the NAACP’s national office asked California lawmakers to support efforts to repeal Proposition 8, which it deemed a civil rights violation. Prop 8 overturned court rulings that allowed the marriage of same-sex couples in that state.
Christopher Smitherman, the Cincinnati NAACP’s president, appointed Finney and defends his action. No one should be judged on one issue alone, Smitherman says, adding that Finney has been a loyal NAACP ally and the organization must first be responsible for acting in the best interests of African-American residents.
“Chris Finney has done a fabulous job for the NAACP over the last two years,” Smitherman says, referring to successful ballot issues that blocked a sales tax increase to build a new jail and repealed City Council’s decision to install red-light cameras at intersections. “He has earned our confidence in him with our legal work. I cannot be concerned with the interests of any other constituency group. I must look out for the interests of our membership.”
Before voters repealed it in 2004, Article 12 prohibited Cincinnati City Council or any other city entity from enacting or enforcing measures to give “minority or preferential status” to homosexuals, in effect preventing gays from seeking protection against discrimination or hate crimes.
The amendment, pushed by people affiliated with Citizens for Community Values (CCV), including Finney, was unique: No other city in the nation had enacted such a measure
After the amendment created a public relations nightmare for the city nationwide and caused $45 million in lost convention business, a coalition of city officials, business CEOs and Cincinnati’s Catholic archbishop led a successful repeal campaign.
Article 12 was CCV’s response to the city’s human rights ordinance after an earlier court challenge failed. During testimony in a 1994 court hearing, Finney was asked why sexual behavior should affect who can eat in a restaurant or be employed by a company.
Finney replied, “Because there may be some who don’t want their family dining next to a homosexual couple whose actions they find offensive.”
Many people believe that view is inconsistent with the sentiment expressed by Julian Bond, the national NAACP’s chairman, in a recent letter to California lawmakers. Bond wrote, “Proposition 8 subverts … basic and necessary safeguards, unjustly putting all Americans, particularly vulnerable minorities, at risk of discrimination by a majority show of hands.”
In fact, pro-Article 12 groups battling the 2004 repeal aimed campaign literature at the black community that implied the Rev. Martin Luther King would support the measure. That sparked an angry rebuke from the King Center and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.
The King Center called the literature “shameful.” During an appearance at Miami University, Mrs. King said, “When any group experiences injustice, it undermines the quality of justice in our society at large — it hurts us all.”
CityBeat e-mailed Finney to ask him several questions, including whether he believes issues of civil rights should be decided by individual state legislatures or by the federal government and — noting conservatives’ typical dislike of “identity politics” — how he felt about working for a group geared toward representing a minority population.
Smitherman prevented Finney from responding, later stating, “You’re not going to see Chris Finney making statements about the work he does for the NAACP. I am the NAACP’s public representative.”
Finney isn’t being paid for his legal work and will serve an indefinite term at Smitherman’s discretion. Finney is helping the NAACP’s efforts to place amendments on the November ballot: one that would require a public vote before City Council spends money on streetcars, the other creating a process to recall the mayor. He’s also helping the group’s push to have more city contracts awarded to minority businesses.
“He’s already gotten tremendous results,” Smitherman says. “He’s a bold attorney, someone who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.”
Smitherman has a gay brother and has championed gay rights in the past. Still, after he was defeated in his City Council re-election bid in 2005, he told CityBeat that he blamed the white gay community for not supporting him.
Asked if that sentiment influenced Finney’s selection, he says, “I continue to be very concerned that the gay community continues to approach the African-American community only when they want something from us.”
Equality Cincinnati, which endorsed Smitherman in his two council campaigns, hasn’t yet addressed the issue.
“Christopher Smitherman has always been and, in my mind, continues to be a friend of the LGBT community,” says George Ellis, Equality’s president. “I haven’t had the chance to talk to him about it, and I wouldn’t want to express any opinion until I have.”
Having a conservative in the NAACP’s ranks isn’t so unusual, Smitherman says.
“There are many African Americans who are NAACP members who are Republican,” he says. “We are not an arm of the Democratic Party. The African-American community is not liberal but traditionally conservative. This is a myth that the African American is liberal.”