News (USA)

Showdown in Houston over LGBT non-discrimination ordinance

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, left, greets a supporter at a fund raiser for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in Houston on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, left, greets a supporter at a fund raiser for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in Houston on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Pat Sullivan, AP

Parker, who is completing her third and final term, has encountered criticism herself. When opponents sued the city — seeking to force a referendum on the ordinance after the city council approved it in May 2014 — city attorneys tried to subpoena sermons from five pastors who opposed the measure. The pastors said the request violated their religious freedom, and the city later dropped the effort.

The lawsuit eventually reached the Texas Supreme Court, which in July ruled the conservative activists should have succeeded in their petition drive to put the issue before voters.

In a sermon last month, Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church, one of the nation’s largest churches, called the ordinance “totally deceptive” and urged his congregation to vote against it because “it will carry our city … further down the road of being totally, in my opinion, secular and godless.”

Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Houston Unites, which supports the ordinance, said the measure is not simply about anti-LGBT discrimination but about multiple forms of bias. Between May 2014 and September 2015, most discrimination complaints in the city related to race and gender; only about 5 percent involved LGBT discrimination.

Several national LGBT-rights groups have deployed staff in Houston to support the ordinance, including Freedom for All Americans. Its CEO, Matt McTighe, praised Houston’s cultural diversity, but said it was the only one of the 10 largest U.S. cities without LGBT non-discrimination protection.

For years, the top priority of the gay-rights movement in the U.S. was winning nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage. When that occurred via a Supreme Court ruling in June, there was broad agreement among activists that the next priority should be obtaining nondiscrimination protections in all 50 states.

At present, Texas is one of 28 states with no statewide protections, although many municipalities in those states have adopted local nondiscrimination policies. Of the other 22 states, 17 prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, and New York will soon join that group. Four states have less sweeping protections.

LGBT activists would like to replace this patchwork of laws with a comprehensive federal nondiscrimination law, and such a measure — the Equality Act — was introduced in July. But it’s given no chance of passage in the current Republican-controlled Congress; none of its more than 200 co-sponsors are from the GOP.

Faced with that reality, LGBT-rights supporters are waging a state-by-state, city-by-city campaign to extend anti-bias protections.

“We’re now at a moment where we’re having conversations with more conservative parts of the country — it’s not easy,” said Sarah Warbelow. “These are educational efforts — bringing people along on what it means to provide protections for the LGBT community and helping people understand that the sky doesn’t fall when you do that.”

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