In Houston, pastors” group rallies against nondiscrimination law that could threaten religious businesses owners.

HOUSTON—Just months after a hotly contested nondiscrimination ordinance passed in San Antonio, Houston faces a similar proposal as Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, prepares to present to the City Council on May 7 an ordinance that would add sexual orientation, marital status and gender identity to a list of racial and other protected categories.

The City of Houston has nondiscrimination codes that apply only to municipal entities. Parker’s proposal would extend those codes to the private sector, prohibiting discrimination in employment and in places of public accommodation such as restaurants, clubs, and other private venues.

Additionally, the proposed ordinance “may broaden the types of employment decisions that could constitute discrimination” under existing federal law, according to the law firm Vinson & Elkins, which issued a summary of the proposal.

The proposal also includes what was eventually dropped from the San Antonio law: Public accommodation of restrooms, shower rooms or similar facilities according to a person’s “expression of gender identity.”

Last fall, with rumors of a San Antonio-like ordinance swirling, the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC) urged like-minded residents to register and vote, hoping to deny Parker a third term and a shot at advancing her policies. Their efforts failed, with Parker winning an endorsement from President Obama and 57 percent of the vote in an election that drew a reported 13 percent of eligible voters.

Jared Woodfill, an attorney and the Harris County GOP chairman, reviewed the proposed ordinance for HAPC and called it an end-run by an agenda-driven mayor serving her final term and uninhibited by political ramifications. Houston now faces its own cultural battle, pitting those who hold a biblical sexual ethic against the mayor’s allies and those willing to acquiesce to it.

“The opposition is very loud and vocal on their issues,” said Woodfill, referring to the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender (LGBT) population advocating nationwide for inclusion in city ordinances.
Steve Branson, pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio and an outspoken opponent of the San Antonio law that passed, 8-3, last September, said, “Houston is much more organized than we were. We fought here and lost.”

With no unifying group comparable to HAPC, Branson said San Antonio was caught flat-footed in their response to the ordinance championed by Mayor Julian Castro, considered a rising star among Democrats. The lack of unity left opponents vulnerable to media and public criticism, Branson said, noting he was labeled “the anti-gay pastor of San Antonio.”

Hyperbolic attacks and accusations of bigotry worked to stifle some opponents.

In a press release introducing the Houston ordinance, Parker stated, “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love. It’s time the laws on our books reflect this.”

The ordinance includes, among other categories, sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics against discrimination in contracting, housing, and public accommodations, and private employment at businesses with at least 50 employees. The city already has such guidelines regarding municipal employment.

Specifically, the ordinance would bar discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, military status, religion, disability, genetic information, and pregnancy—characteristics covered by federal statutes—and also sexual orientation, gender identity, familial status and marital status. 

“Religious organizations” are exempt from compliance “so long as those organizations meet the criteria set forth in the ordinance.” But Woodfill said the burden of proof is on the religious organizations to prove their exempt status and the vagaries of the code would make identification difficult.

Individual business owners will not be exempt from compliance even on religious grounds.

Woodfill said the law would likely allow the city to provide benefits to the partners of same-sex couples and recognize their marriages from other states, in violation of city code and Texas law. In November, only two weeks after her re-election, Parker signed an executive order allowing the city to offer benefits to same-sex couples legally married in other states.

The executive order preceded the Jan. 16 marriage ceremony of Parker and longtime companion Kathy Hubbard in California, which legally recognizes such unions.

After Woodfill filed suit against the executive order, a state judge issued a temporary restraining order, halting its implementation. The case is now before a Houston federal judge who will determine if it will be heard in a state or federal court.

“Marital status” is a term conspicuously missing from two-and-a-half pages of definitions in the 34-page document despite its designation as one of the ordinance’s protected characteristics. Woodfill said he believes that is an intentional ploy to allow city attorneys to build policy based on the mayor’s executive order.

Despite an urgent push to include the new LGBT-related characteristics as a protected class, Woodfill said the City of Houston has presented little evidence of wide discrimination.

“There is no evidence of any discrimination that rises to the level of imposing the threat of fines and punishment on all citizens and most businesses in the city,” HAPC stated in a press release.

But Janice Evans, chief policy officer and director of communications in the mayor’s office, told the TEXAN by email, a city of Houston’s size and prominence should not leave its citizens without a means of redress on a local level.

“This is not about any one specific group. It is about protecting the rights of everyone, including young African Americans who are regularly turned away from clubs, elderly people who are denied jobs, returning vets who have been prohibited from bringing their service dogs with them to restaurants,” she said.

Woodfill said current federal laws protect public- and private-sector employees and citizens in private or public establishments. But the ordinance, if passed, would require municipal and private venues to make accommodations for customers and employees based on their sexual orientation and gender identity—including the access to bathrooms and showers.

The ordinance states, “It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity.”

The proposal appears to provide legal cover to a business acting in “good faith” in attempting to judge such gender questions, but only if the complainant “represented or expressed gender to others (e.g. behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice or mannerisms)” in a manner “not consistent with the gender designation of the facility the person attempted to access.” 

Whatever happens in Houston, Woodfill said churches must engage the culture with the gospel and attempt to bring biblical wisdom to public policy. When churches make their voices heard, Woodfill said elected officials will take notice.

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