Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Faces Sharp Criticism
Houston Mayor Annise Parker has been facing political heat for proposing what she and city officials have titled an “equal rights ordinance.” The Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party has dubbed the ordinance “Mayor Parker’s Sexual Predator Protection Act.”
Mayor Parker is an openly gay leader in the fourth largest city in the nation. She is the only person in the city to have ever held the offices of Mayor, Controller, and City Council member. During her campaigns for Mayor, Parker promised not to promote what conservatives have termed a “gay agenda.”
The Greater Houston Partnership has endorsed the thirty-one page ordinance saying that the “ordinance will create a new equal rights chapter in municipal code that addresses discrimination in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment.” During the Annual Meeting in February, President and CEO Bob Harvey outlined the organization’s top priorities including “ensuring inclusivity and opportunity for all Houstonians.”
Jared Woodfill, Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, argues that “Mayor Parker continues to grow the scope and size of government while forcing her liberal social agenda on the City of Houston. Her most recent efforts include a proposed ordinance that provides an opportunity for sexual predators to have access to our families. The Mayor's proposed ordinance, among other things, requires Houston businesses to make all women's bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms available to all who are dressed in female attire, without regard to biological sex. Proposed NDO, Sec. 17-51(b) (the "Open Bathrooms Component"). This provision subjects women and girls to sexual predators who are allegedly confused by their gender identity.”
Dr. Steven Hotze, Republican political kingmaker, author, and owner of a successful health and wellness center, argues that “Mayor Parker’s ordinance would include minority status for transvestites, allowing men who dress as women to enter women’s public bathrooms and locker room areas.” Dr. Hotze says that his intent is to “protect my wife, daughters and granddaughters from being exposed to the dangers of male sexual predators masquerading as women in women’s bathrooms and other facilities.”
Hotze is also concerned that the ordinance would “open the door for quotas in hiring, in city contracts and affirmative action requirements.” Moreover, he says that “according to Parker’s proposed ordinance if you refused to hire, do business with, or refuse access to female restrooms for transvestites, then you would be prosecuted as a criminal.” He and others believe that business owners should not be forced by law to accept behavior that they consider immoral.
Complaints and prosecution relating to the ordinance would be handled by the City’s Office of Inspector General and the City Attorney. The City website states that “if the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the City Attorney may ask City Council to approve the issuance of a subpoena to compel cooperation.” The ordinance also gives the Mayor the power to create a task force to study and report on matters related to the ordinance. The Houston Business Journal published an article that claimed that the ordinance was “a non-issue” because federal law “provides much greater protection than the Houston ordinance,” and “the most you can get fined is $5,000” for the class C misdemeanors.
The Mayor has tried to appease religious groups by exempting religious organizations from the definition of employer. The City of Houston website says that “the ordinance provides exemptions for religious organizations in the provisions that deal with places of public accommodation, private employment, and fair housing, so long as those organizations meet the criteria set forth in the ordinance.” John O’Neill says that the “ordinance protects religious organizations that do not discriminate.”
O’Neill spoke during the comment session for the proposed ordinance which was held this week during a City of Houston Council meeting. He correctly noted that the city chambers was “packed with pro-ordinance people.” Although O’Neill is a political activist and co-founder of Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formed for the purpose of opposing John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid), he said that the audience was intimidating. It was certainly a site to watch, and supporters would all waive their hands after “favorable” speakers.
O’Neill was joined by State Senators, State Representatives, the Harris County Sheriff, a University Dean, a Democratic political consultant, a former Democratic candidate for Governor, the first woman in Texas to run for Governor, a fireman, the clergy, as well as members of the GLBT community. Each speaker was given one minute to speak. The City Secretary announced that there would be 306 minutes of scheduled speakers.
John O’Neill is a prominent Texas lawyer who was first in his class at the University of Texas Law School. He made the third highest grade in the history of the law school. He also served as a briefing clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. He stood out because of his legal analysis of the ordinance.
O’Neill said that he “strongly favored equal opportunity and would support a straightforward equal public accommodations ordinance and an extension of the fair housing ordinance to include gay citizens; however, this ordinance is not that.” O’Neill said that what “could be done in two paragraphs,” is instead “a very lengthy and complex ordinance – much incomprehensible to me, but full of hooks, traps, and unintended consequences.”
O’Neill gave a few examples. He said that “if I am a black minister whose church believes that a practicing gay couple cannot be a member and I operate a housing project for elderly church members, I am a criminal under this statute.” He said that he would support a housing ordinance that applied to “substantial projects,” “but small units of six homes” would be a “freedom of association” problem. O’Neill said that “this proposed ordinance which criminalizes large potential numbers of innocent people would promote hate and division, not tolerance and equality.”
Communication and public affairs strategist, and Fox26 political commentator Mustafa Tameez’ wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the ordinance is necessary to end discrimination. He cited examples of barring Muslims from parking lots, arresting someone based solely on their race, or keeping African-Americans out of nightclubs. David Wilson of Houstonians for Family Values said that the ordinance was “pure and simple, payback to supporters of homosexual behavior.” He called the behavior “immoral” and “unnatural.” James Buntrock a self-described “simple Christian bookkeeper,” said that the ordinance “did not line up with God’s will.” He said that it was his opinion that this “had nothing to do with discrimination” and the issue of sexual preference was a private one.
Mayor Parker has worked with other mayors in the nation for the legalization of same-sex marriage, and she proclaimed Valentine’s Day Freedom to Marry Day. The Mayor contends that her opinions on the GLBT issue is more about freedom of speech than promotion of an ideology.
Houston voters supported the state constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in 2005, and did so by an almost two-to-one margin. The vote in Harris County was 72.5 percent to 25.5 percent. Jared Woodfill, Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party said that Parker was violating the Constitution by calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage in contravention of the expressed will of the voters. At the time, Woodfill chastised the Mayor saying “she should be in Houston doing her job balancing the budget" instead of “promoting her agenda at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.”
Conservatives say their fight will be by referendum and lawsuits. Dr. Steven Hotze of Conservative Republicans of Texas and Conservative Republicans of Harris County, Jared Woodfill, and Dave Welch, Executive Director of the Houston and Texas Pastor Councils, have vowed to continue the fight through the courts and at the polls. The vote on the ordinance was delayed by the City Council on Wednesday.