HOUSTON—By an 11-6 vote, the Houston City Council on Wednesday (May 28) approved a controversial nondiscrimination ordinance that broadens civil rights laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
The measure passed despite the efforts of an ethnically diverse coalition of pastors who called the measure “deeply flawed” and a threat to religious liberty. The opposition pastors vowed to launch a city referendum petition to put the issue to a vote this fall.
Following the roll call vote after nine hours of proceedings, the council chambers erupted in cheers from spectators packing the room to speak overwhelmingly for the ordinance. Many proponents recounted stories of physical and verbal abuse and discrimination against those who identified as homosexual or transgender. Fewer than 20 of the 209 people addressing the council voiced their disapproval, although previous public hearings and rallies had drawn thousands who opposed the law, raising questions by some about the process inside the chamber.
Both sides of the debate invoked God and the Bible to defend their cause.
“I’m also here as a Houstonian who believes that Jesus Christ died and rose again,” John Gorczynski, president of the Texas Young Democrats, told the City Council. His organization fought for passage of a similar ordinance in San Antonio last year.
He said, “Hear me! There are Christians that love you. The opposition is loud. The hateful are loud. But I love you and so do others.”
Gorczynski’s remark may have been in response to chants of “Just say, ‘No!’” filtering into the chamber from an impromptu opposition demonstration formed on the steps of City Hall. The divisive ordinance served to unite racially and politically divergent church leaders from the Baptist Ministers’ Association of Houston, Houston Area Pastor Council, Houston Ministers Against Crime, AME Ministers’ Alliance of Houston/Gulf Coast, Northeast Ministers’ Alliance, South Texas Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, South Texas District Council of the Assemblies of God, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Their four-week campaign against the ordinance ended in one final protest as coalition pastors walked out of the council chambers just before the public hearings began when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) supporters of the ordinance were given what appeared to be preferential treatment on the speaker’s roster. Councilman Dwight Boykin had asked for similar consideration for coalition pastors Willie Davis and Max Miller but was rebuffed.
“It was one of the most flagrantly disrespectful actions taken by an elected body toward its own constituency I have witnessed in over 30 years of involvement,” said Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council and a coalition organizer.
The nondiscrimination ordinance—called HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) by supporters—duplicates existing federal and state law but adds sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of 13 other protected citizen classes.
In an open letter to Parker and the City Council, HAPC called the equivocation of sexual behavior and gender identity with the immutable characteristics of race, religion, sex and disability “patently offensive.”
Much of the opposition centered on the “public accommodation” provision of the law, which allows transgender individuals to use the public restrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.
Critics argued the provision disregards the privacy of men and women using those same facilities and could put women and children at risk of male sexual predators. The concern, voiced repeatedly in recent weeks, was dismissed during the public hearing as a fear-mongering meme.
Prior to the meeting, David Fleming, pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church, told the TEXAN the public accommodations, although the most obvious red flag, is not the most egregious.
Fleming, Welch, Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church and former Southern Baptist Convention president, Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, and coalition pastors said the ordinance, at its core, poses a threat to religious liberties.
In a letter to the Greater Houston Partnership, an association of 2,000 Houston businesses, Sloan called the law ideological and divisive. The GHP endorsed the ordinance despite dissent in and out of its ranks.
“The proposed ordinance’s political definition of gender identity is simply the statement, by fiat, of what we are required to believe about personhood,” Sloan wrote.
The definition stands in stark contrast to traditionally held religious and philosophical understandings of personhood.
He continued, “Ours is not an arbitrarily understood position, nor is it socio-politically neutral; and the proposed ordinance is not ideologically, or theologically, neutral. It attempts to coerce, by legal definition, our adherence to beliefs and practices with which we profoundly disagree.”
“Now you have a fundamental Constitutional issue,” Fleming said. “The real question is do people have real religious liberty or just churches?”
Without invoking religion, Richard Thompson gave the council one of the most succinct dissents. He said, “If a law disallows disagreement, then the right of conscience, the most fundamental freedom, is deprived. Any law which elevates one side at the expense of the other is inherently unjust.”
The ordinance excludes “religious organizations” from compliance with the law. But Sloan distrusts the government’s ability to define the term, pointing to the university’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act and its requirement that Christian schools abide by its birth control mandates.
But several homosexual ministers testifying Wednesday scoffed at such concerns, arguing Christians—even the “misguided” ones opposing the measure—should recognize the need to affirm the LGBT community.
Others argued the law justly protects certain classes. Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church, said that though he believed some of the behaviors protected by the ordinance were sinful, the law would not keep him from believing that. And all citizens, as creations of God, should be treated “equally and well,” he said.
Numerous speakers cited “The Golden Rule” as central to the debate.
Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of Texas Values, accused council members of ignoring the will of their constituents by voting for the ordinance. His organization facilitated a campaign that forwarded 110,000 emails to the Houston City Council and the mayor opposing the ordinance.
Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church, said Monday (May 26) that two councilmen told him constituency opposition to the ordinance was as high as 10-1. Councilman Michael Kubosh, who attended a rally at Grace Community Church hosted by Hispanic pastors, said calls and emails to his office were 7-1 against the law. Kubosh is an at-large council member.
After hearing that influential community leaders were excluded from the drafting of the ordinance and opposition dismissed by proponents, Saenz filed a Texas Public Information Act request to review all correspondence related to the ordinance.
In response to the vote, Willie Davis, pastor of MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church, said, ““This ordinance was exposed to be nothing more than a political payoff to [Parker’s] national LGBT allies while completely ignoring and excluding legitimate community leaders in the discussions.”
But Chris Banks, quoting an Irish philosopher, told council to ignore their constituents.
Kubosh reminded Banks the City Council is a representative body and asked what he was to do with the 7,000 constituent calls and emails opposing the measure compared to about 1,000 in favor.
Banks replied, “You weren’t elected to do what the public wants. The public elected you to vote your conscience.”
Meanwhile, coalition leaders are preparing for a referendum petition drive, needing 17,000 voter signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot this fall.
“We are together to gather signatures, together in November at the ballot box for the referendum and will remain together in future elections,” said Hernan Castano, pastor of Iglesia Rios de Aceite and director of Hispanic Church Development for HAPC.