Hearing exposes confusion of San Antonio leaders on controversial non-discrimination measure

Vote scheduled for Sept. 5 on proposal that would bar those who oppose homosexuality from city office or contracts

SAN ANTONIO—As hundreds of concerned residents voiced their opinions at a six-hour San Antonio City Council meeting on Wednesday (Aug. 28) about a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance that would bar anyone who opposes homosexuality from serving in public office or getting a city contract, city officials appeared confused at times about the measure’s legal consequences, said Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of the conservative group Texas Values, an arm of Plano-based Liberty Institute.

The group testifying against the ordinance “clearly outnumber[ed]” its supporters, Saenz said from the meeting via Twitter.

The apparent confusion of council members prompted councilman Carlton Soules to say the body was not ready to vote. Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who opposes the ordinance, suggested that it be put on a city ballot for voters to decide—a suggestion that drew a standing ovation from meeting attendees.

The ordinance, which has prompted 27,000 emails of opposition to council members, is scheduled for a vote Sept. 5.

In the council’s afternoon session, opponents of the measure—marked by blue shirts—made up more than 350 of the 400 people in the room, Saenz said. But during the evening session, the six-hour meeting that was open for public comment, the ordinance’s supporters—marked by red shirts—made up about half of the crowd, Saenz said, adding that “reports of a ‘sea of red’ are false.” The crowd was so large that many listened to the discussion in overflow rooms throughout the municipal complex.

Whether transgendered people should be allowed to use any restroom they choose was a significant part of the discussion, with some gay-rights activists saying they now oppose the ordinance because it does not protect the right of men to use women’s bathrooms and vice versa, according to Saenz. Earlier in the day councilman Diego Bernal, who spearheaded the ordinance, floated a new draft specifying that the measure would not change the city’s laws prohibiting the use of restrooms for “persons of the opposite sex,” the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Among Saenz’s tweets from the meeting:

—“SA atty admits no analysis of other cities with LGBT ordinances, but says ‘they seem to have worked.’”

—“SA city atty having major trouble answering basic questions on ord, confused about if ‘religious exemption’ cover[s] all sections of ordinance.”

—“San Antonio City Council shows officials are confused & concerned about LGBT ordinance, even city attorney didn’t have grasp on it.”

An early draft of the proposed ordinance prohibits “appointed officials” and “member[s] of a board or commission” from demonstrating “bias, by word or deed, against any person, groups of persons, or organization on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, age or disability, while acting in such public position.”

“Sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are the categories that have sparked opposition. The ordinance draft labels “bias” against homosexuals as “malfeasance” and authorizes the City Council to “remove the offending person from office.” Violation of the ordinance would be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $500, according to the Express-News.

Businesses that have contracts with the city must include in their contracts a statement that they do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the draft.

Bernal’s new draft says religious groups may define their own membership when making hiring decisions and adds a statement that nothing in the ordinance “shall be construed as requiring any person or organization to support or advocate any particular lifestyle or religious view, or advance any particular message or idea.”

Conservative groups, however, still believe the ordinance infringes upon religious liberty.

 “This proposed ordinance contains some of the most blatant and unprecedented violations of the religious freedom of Texans that I have ever seen,” Saenz said in a statement earlier in the day. “This extreme power grab by the government shocks the conscience and tarnishes the legacy of the city of San Antonio that is so rich in religious heritage. If passed, this ordinance will be used as a weapon to silence people of faith and to punish people who hold a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. If Mayor [Julian] Castro and Councilman Diego Bernal were looking for a way to divide people in the City of San Antonio, they have found it.”

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