The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance passed Wednesday (May 28) by an 11-6 margin, despite efforts of an ethnically diverse coalition of pastors who called the measure "deeply flawed" and a threat to religious liberty.
Following the roll call vote after nine hours of proceedings, the council chambers erupted in cheers from spectators packing the room to speak overwhelmingly for the ordinance. Testifying before the City Council, proponents recounted stories of physical and verbal abuse and discrimination against those who identified as homosexual or transgender. Fewer than 20 of the 209 people addressing the council voiced disapproval, although previous public hearings and rallies had drawn thousands who opposed the law. The scant verbal opposition at the meeting raised questions by some about the integrity of the council's deliberations.
Coalition leaders are preparing for a referendum petition drive, needing 17,000 voter signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot this fall.
"We are together to gather signatures, together in November at the ballot box for the referendum and will remain together in future elections," said Hernan Castano, pastor of Iglesia Rios de Aceite and director of Hispanic Church Development for HAPC.
Both sides of the debate invoked God and the Bible to defend their cause.
"I'm also here as a Houstonian who believes that Jesus Christ died and rose again," John Gorczynski, president of the Texas Young Democrats, told the City Council. His organization fought for passage of a similar ordinance in San Antonio last year.
"Hear me! There are Christians that love you," Gorczynski said. "The opposition is loud. The hateful are loud. But I love you and so do others." His remark may have been in response to chants of "Just say No!" filtering into the chamber from an impromptu opposition demonstration formed on the steps of the Houston City Hall.
The divisive ordinance served to unite racially and politically divergent church leaders from a host of groups, including the Baptist Ministers' Association of Houston, the Houston Area Pastor Council, Houston Ministers Against Crime, the AME Ministers' Alliance of Houston/Gulf Coast, the Northeast Ministers' Alliance, the South Texas Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, the South Texas District Council of the Assemblies of God, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Their four-week campaign against the ordinance ended in one final protest as coalition pastors walked out of the council chambers just before the public hearings began, when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters of the ordinance were given what appeared to be preferential treatment on the speakers' roster. Councilman Dwight Boykin had asked for similar consideration for coalition pastors Willie Davis and Max Miller but was rebuffed.
Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC) and a coalition organizer, voiced his displeasure.
"It was one of the most flagrantly disrespectful actions taken by an elected body toward its own constituency I have witnessed in over 30 years of involvement," Welch said.
The ordinance, called HERO by supporters, duplicates existing federal and state law, but adds sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of 13 other protected citizen classes.
In an open letter to Parker and the City Council, HAPC called "patently offensive" the equivocation of sexual behavior and gender identity with the immutable characteristics of race, religion, sex and disability.
Much of the opposition centered on the public accommodation provision of the law, which allows transgender individuals to use the public restrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.
Critics argued the provision disregards the privacy of men and women using those same facilities and could put women and children at risk of male sexual predators. The concern, voiced repeatedly in recent weeks, was dismissed during the public hearing as a fear-mongering meme.
Prior to the meeting David Fleming, pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church, told the Southern Baptist Texan that the public accommodations measure, although the most obvious red flag, is not the most egregious.
Fleming, Welch, Second Baptist Church pastor Ed Young, Houston Baptist University President Robert Sloan and coalition pastors said the ordinance at its core poses a threat to religious liberties.
In a letter to the Greater Houston Partnership of 2,000 businesses, Sloan called the law ideological and divisive. The GHP endorsed the ordinance despite dissent in and out of its ranks.
"The proposed ordinance's political definition of gender identity is simply the statement, by fiat, of what we are required to believe about personhood," Sloan wrote. The definition stands in stark contrast to traditionally held religious and philosophical understandings of personhood.
"Ours is not an arbitrarily understood position, nor is it socio-politically neutral;" Sloan wrote, "and the proposed ordinance is not ideologically, or theologically, neutral. It attempts to coerce, by legal definition, our adherence to beliefs and practices with which we profoundly disagree."
"Now you have a fundamental Constitutional issue," Fleming said. "The real question is do people have real religious liberty or just churches?"
The law excludes "religious organizations" from compliance, but Sloan distrusts the government's ability to define the term, pointing to Baptist University's lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act over the requirement that Christian schools abide by certain birth control mandates.
But several homosexual ministers testifying Wednesday scoffed at such concerns, arguing that Christians, even the "misguided" ones opposing the measure, should recognize the need to affirm the LGBT community.
Others argued the law justly protects certain classes. Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church, said that though he believed some of the behaviors protected by the ordinance were sinful, the law would not keep him from believing that. And all citizens, as creations of God, should be treated "equally and well," he said.
Numerous speakers cited the biblical golden rule as central to the debate.
Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of Texas Values, accused council members of ignoring the will of their constituents by voting for the ordinance. His organization facilitated a campaign that forwarded to the Houston City Council and the mayor 110,000 emails opposing the ordinance. Saenz has filed a Texas Public Information Act request to review all correspondence related to the ordinance.
Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church, said Monday (May 26) that two councilmen told him constituency opposition to the ordinance was as high as 10-1. Councilman-at-large Michael Kubosh, who attended a rally at Grace Community Church hosted by Hispanic pastors, said calls and emails to his office were 7-1 against the law.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service, reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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