Groups Decry Loss of Okla. Human Rights Commission

By | June 13, 2012

Several groups representing the interests of minorities in Oklahoma criticized the elimination of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission and met on June 11 to form a new coalition to promote equality and end discrimination.

Individuals with several minority-rights groups met at the Oklahoma Democratic Party headquarters to discuss the creation of the “Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance.” Others involved in the planning meeting included union officials, members of the faith community, Democratic activists and several members of the Human Rights Commission.

“Collectively these various groups could have a loud voice, but individually they may not have much of a voice, so we just felt like we needed to bring them together and see what the consensus is,” said Wallace Collins, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

The GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill in 2011 to transfer all duties of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission to the attorney general’s office, effective July 1. The commission employs about a dozen workers, and a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office says those employees have been encouraged to apply for a position in that office.

“We will be announcing the staff, the director and how people need to contact the Office of Civil Rights in the coming days,” said spokeswoman Diane Clay.

Clay said once the duties of the commission are transferred, the attorney general’s office will be responsible for investigating violations of Oklahoma’s anti-discrimination statutes, which include employment and housing-related discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion and disability.

Commission Director John Carrington did not return several messages left at his office.

Gov. Mary Fallin supported the bill in 2011 to move the commission to the attorney general’s office as part of her effort to make state government more efficient.

“The governor feels merging the responsibilities of the Human Rights Commission into the attorney general’s office elevates the mission of protecting human rights as well as saves tax dollars and ensures government resources are used efficiently and effectively,” said Fallin spokesman Aaron Cooper. “The governor has confidence the attorney general’s office will dutifully carry out the mission of protecting the rights of all Oklahoma citizens.”

Neil McElderry, the vice-chairman of the commission, said the move will make it more difficult for Oklahoma residents who are discriminated against to seek justice.

“It’s an emasculation of the entire operation,” McElderry said. “If you want to file a human rights complaint, you’re out of luck.”

But Clay said the attorney general’s office will be responsive to legitimate discrimination complaints and hopes to have a complaint form on its website.

“We certainly want to hear from individual citizens,” Clay said. “We may be able to address some of those issues or concerns.”

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