San Antonio ordinance may affect conventions

Baptist Press
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Posted: Sep 17, 2013 5:22 PM
SAN ANTONIO (BP) -- A new San Antonio nondiscrimination ordinance likely will prevent the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention from holding annual meetings in the city's convention facilities, according to an attorney who represents both conventions, referencing the law's requirement that contracting parties not discriminate on sexual orientation or gender identity.

James Guenther, general counsel for the SBC and SBTC, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, "The likelihood is that if there is any ambiguity in the minds of the conventions as to what it is they're agreeing to, city will simply be bypassed. Or at least the city-owned facilities will be bypassed."

The ordinance, passed by an 8-3 vote of the San Antonio City Council on Sept. 5, also provides for the removal of city officials from office if they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and it forbids businesses in the city, with few exceptions, from discriminating based on their opposition to homosexuality. An earlier draft of the ordinance that would have made it illegal to demonstrate "bias by word or deed" was removed in the final version in favor of the term "discrimination."

Violation of the law by businesses or property owners is a Class C misdemeanor.

Multiple groups have announced plans to file legal challenges to the ordinance, and efforts are underway to recall Councilman Diego Bernal, the measure's author, and Mayor Julian Castro, who supported it. Elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R.-Texas, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, have raised concerns as well.

It's not clear how the new ordinance would apply to a convention leasing the city's facilities, Guenther said. One possible interpretation is that no official statement of the convention would be allowed to denounce homosexuality. Another interpretation is that the convention would only be barred from denying seating to homosexual messengers.

Either interpretation is problematic, Guenther said. Neither SBC nor SBTC governing documents specifically exclude homosexuals from being messengers, he said, but they forbid churches that affirm homosexuality from sending messengers.

The SBC last met in San Antonio in 2007 in a city-owned convention hall. The SBTC met in San Antonio last year but at Castle Hills First Baptist Church.

The SBC constitution, Article III, states, "The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of missionary Baptist churches cooperating with the Convention." It goes on to specify, "Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior."

The SBTC constitution, article IV, states, "The SBTC will not consider for affiliation or continued affiliation any church that has taken action affirming, approving, or endorsing the practice of homosexuality. Such actions include but are not limited to the licensure or ordination of homosexuals, marriage or blessing of homosexual relationships, and endorsing homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." The document only allows affiliated churches to send messengers to annual meetings.

Whether either convention "discriminates" against homosexuals is a "nuanced" and complicated issue, Guenther said.

"If someone walks in off the street and is not a messenger but is known somehow to be homosexual, he's still welcome ," Guenther said. "Obviously if he misconducts himself, then he's not welcome. But we do not, to my knowledge, bar the presence of persons who are homosexual in the meeting."

But "if a church sent a person as a messenger and that person was known to be one who himself was homosexual or one who championed homosexual causes, that would raise the question of whether the church is in friendly cooperation. And if the church is deemed to be not in friendly cooperation, as evidenced by the church's selection of that messenger, then the convention could act to deny the seating of that messenger," Guenther said.

Other cities have nondiscrimination ordinances but neither the SBC nor SBTC has been forced to sign a contract for an annual meeting promising not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Guenther said, adding that the San Antonio ordinance is particularly problematic.

"When one reads the San Antonio ordinance, I think one would conclude that the convention commission, or whoever operates the convention center that wants to lease, would have no authority to execute a contract unless it contained this provision," Guenther said.

The SBC and SBTC are "very sensitive" to the development of nondiscrimination ordinances and will "take care on the first occasion" that a contract is presented barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Guenther said.

"We have discussed this development with both conventions, and those officers who make convention arrangements are sensitive to them," Guenther said. "We'll simply have to wait and see how these ordinances get interpreted."

Under the law, according to Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, wedding-related businesses such as photography studios and bakeries could be targeted for legal action if they refuse to participate in homosexual commitment ceremonies, for example. Printing businesses also could be cited if they refuse to print literature or articles of clothing for gay pride events.

"Primarily, you're going to see small businesses targeted," Saenz predicted. "They don't have the type of support or financial ability to withstand any type of attack or challenge on these types of issues." Saenz recounted that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates testified at a recent city hearing that if the ordinance became law, they would protest businesses that oppose the homosexual lifestyle. "They'll boycott them. They'll have people call them. They'll have people on social media bombard them on these issues," Saenz said.

City officials received 11,000 opposition emails in the weeks leading up to the vote, and five City Council meetings on the ordinance drew hundreds of residents who expressed their opposition. In an Aug. 28 meeting, city officials appeared confused about the measure's legal consequences, as the city attorney struggled to answer questions and expressed concerns that he was embarrassing himself.

Last-minute amendments clarified that the measure does not require businesses to allow transgendered persons to use restrooms or locker rooms intended for people of the opposite sex -- a change that angered some of the ordinance's supporters.

Several previous amendments attempted to calm the swell of opposition. Thanks to one amendment, a "religious corporation, association, society or educational institution" may limit employment to members of the same religion. Another amendment added the qualifier, "Nothing herein 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."

"The San Antonio issue is not anywhere close to being over," Saenz said. "I think you'll see more people engaged in the local elections the next time around, and you'll likely see more people wanting to run for office and challenge because of this issue."

David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. This article is adapted by reports in the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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