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Lebanon officials approve diversity panel despite concerns over ‘divisive concepts’ law

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2021 9:35:19 PM
Modified: 7/21/2021 9:35:26 PM

LEBANON — City officials voted Wednesday night to form a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission despite concerns that the group’s efforts could conflict with a new state law that seeks to limit some discussions about race and sex.

The City Council voted unanimously to create the nine-member group, which could start meeting in the fall.

Its mission is to recommend ways to “address diversity and equity issues, promote inclusion/diversity programs and provide guidance to create a more accessible, safe, welcoming and inclusive government and community.”

That includes working alongside Lebanon’s business and nonprofit communities. To track progress, the commission will issue quarterly reports to the City Council.

Councilors said the group is needed to moderate conversations about sensitive topics, especially after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last year.

Councilor Karen Liot Hill said she’s “proud that this is the direction our city is headed in.”

“I think this is an important next step for us,” she said. “It builds on the work that we have done as a city.”

Past efforts, Liot Hill said, include the council’s 2018 adoption of a resolution rejecting “ALL ideologies based on hatred and intolerance” and passage of the Welcoming Lebanon Ordinance, which prevents Lebanon police, employees and volunteers from asking people about their immigration status or sharing information with federal immigration authorities.

Officials also shrugged off a warning that the commission’s work could run afoul of the so-called “divisive concepts” provision of New Hampshire’s two-year budget.

That law, which was signed last month by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, prohibits teaching that one group — based on race, age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation — is inherently racist, sexist, or superior or inferior.

“Train and treat all equally without discrimination,” said guidance on the law issued Tuesday by the state Department of Education, Commission for Human Rights and Department of Justice.

The guidance goes on to say that the law doesn’t bar government institutions from examining issues “related to equity, diversity, inclusion, equality and other related topics” or implicit bias training, which is premised on teaching people about biases they may not be consciously aware of, according to the three-page document.

All of the residents who spoke during Wednesday’s public hearing said they were in favor of Lebanon creating the commission and urged city councilors to not be deterred by the state law.

“I certainly hope this does not become a problem for this commission, but if it does, I hope Lebanon will challenge it,” said Lindsay Dearborn, who added that she was dismayed by the measure’s passage in the Legislature.

“It’s amazing to me that the government of New Hampshire is now attempting to tell me who I can talk to about what, under what circumstances and a number of other things,” she said.

Democrats, school districts and municipal officials across the state had worried that the new law could prevent government efforts to educate people about structural racism and sexism.

Among them was Lebanon’s attorney, Christine Fillmore, who said in a memo last week that the city should not be deterred from creating the commission, but should be aware of “potential consequences.”

While the ordinance creating the commission wouldn’t violate the new law, “it is, however, quite possible that these concepts would be part of some of the programs, initiatives, recommendations and/or advice that the commission would undertake,” wrote Fillmore, of the Manchester-based firm Drummond Woodsum.

Penalties for violating the law include fines of up to $50,000 from the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights, she said, adding there is a “reasonable argument to be made” that the statute violated both the U.S. and New Hampshire constitutions.

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella also issued a statement earlier this month saying the state law doesn’t prohibit the creation of Lebanon’s commission or members from carrying out its duties and responsibilities.

However, other New Hampshire communities have struggled to interpret the new state law and what it could mean for municipal efforts to promote diversity and inclusion.

For instance, A Keene City Council committee earlier this month recommended that the city strip discussions about implicit bias, diversity and inclusion from its proposed orientation for elected officials. Likewise, cities like Concord and Manchester evaluated existing training programs this summer to predict whether they could run afoul of the law.

Lebanon’s new commission is similar to the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, whose members endorsed the new group prior to Wednesday’s meeting.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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