SAN ANTONIO — Gay rights victories in Texas haven’t come at the Capitol but at city hall. While nondiscrimination bills in the Legislature languish, Houston has a lesbian mayor and Austin offers health benefits for same-sex couples.
But in San Antonio, conservatives are pushing back against one proposed stride — an ordinance that’s virtually identical to measures adopted in every other major Texas city.
The San Antonio City Council is expected to vote Thursday on amending its nondiscrimination code to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. The local issue has drawn top-line Republican opposition from such heavyweights as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the early favorite to become Texas governor in 2014.
Nearly 180 cities nationwide have adopted similar nondiscrimination protections, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
San Antonio is the nation’s seventh-largest city, and Democratic Mayor Julian Castro is a rising star who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last year. Yet the conservative backlash in his backyard is a weed in Castro’s narrative that San Antonio already embraces the political values that will spread statewide and turn Texas blue.
For Republicans, who hold every statewide office in Texas and mock predictions that a Democratic resurgence is on the horizon, the San Antonio proposal has rallied supporters and become an early stakeout ahead of the 2014 primaries.
Hundreds of congregants from black and Latino churches have also rallied against the ordinance on the steps of City Hall.
“I consider this an attempt to impose a liberal value system over the objection of millions of Texans,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who as a state senator sponsored a constitutional amendment that defined marriage in Texas as between one man and one woman. “It actually discriminates against those with deeply held religious views by pushing this agenda to the extreme.”
Staples is running for lieutenant governor next year. One of his primary opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, said the ordinance “runs counter to the Holy Bible and the United States Constitution.” Cruz said he was encouraged to see “Texans standing up to defend their religious freedoms.”
Castro said the opposition to what he called an “overdue” amendment was disappointing.
“These days, unfortunately, it’s campaign season,” Castro said. “What else would you expect?”
Attention surrounding the ordinance spread far beyond San Antonio last month when City Councilwoman Elisa Chan was caught on tape calling homosexuality “disgusting” and arguing that gays should not be allowed to adopt. The comments were surreptitiously recorded during a staff meeting by a former aide, who then shared the audio with the San Antonio Express-News.
Chan has defended her comments and has vowed to stand for freedom of speech and right to privacy. During a packed hearing about the ordinance last week, Chan received several standing ovations.
She has called for voters to decide the issue with a ballot referendum rather than put it in the hands of the council.
Abbott, the attorney general, sent a letter to Castro on Wednesday warning the city that adopting the ordinance would likely invite a lawsuit. But the carefully worded letter did not say that challenge would come from the state. Abbott wrote that “when the diversity being trampled is religious diversity, the Constitution must be reckoned with.”
Chuck Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said claims that the ordinance would result in religious infringement are untrue.
“In the context of public accommodation, you can say, ‘I think you’re disgusting, I think you’re going to go to hell — would you like baked potatoes or fries with that order?'” Smith said. “It does not suppress any expression of their beliefs, religious or otherwise.”
Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso have ordinances making it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and some have been on the books longer than a decade. Smith said adding San Antonio to the list would nonetheless be a major victory given the fierce opposition that has erupted within the past month.
Victories on a state level in Texas remain much more elusive for gay rights advocates. Asked to recall a significant recent achievement in the Legislature, Smith took a long pause, then pointed toward a statewide nondiscrimination law proposed in the Senate this spring.
Not because the bill passed, but because it was filed at all.
“There’s no question it’s been much tougher on a statewide level,” Castro said. “It’s hard to tell when things will turn around. But my hope is that the time will come very soon.”
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