Measure would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Houston

Charter amendment could also allow DP benefits for city workers

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Contributing Writer

HOUSTON — Long-brewing plans to place a city-wide non-discrimination policy before Houston voters became public this week.

Since December a coalition of organizations and leaders have been working to draft a city charter amendment that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of  “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or physical characteristic.”

The amendment would also remove anti-LGBT language added to the Houston city charter in 1985 and 2001 — which could allow the City Council to vote to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who famously became the only out LGBT person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, has declined to comment on the proposed charter amendment until the language is finalized. She told the Houston Chronicle: “I believe it’s important for the city of Houston to send a signal to the world that we welcome everybody and that we treat everybody equally, and depending on the elements of what was actually in it, I might or might not support it,”

According to Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, the prospect of Houston voters approving the non-discrimination amendment has ramifications for efforts to pass similar measures in the state Legislature.

“Nondiscrimination in Houston builds a better case for us when we go for nondiscrimination in Austin,” said Coleman. “To be able to tell representatives that they represent areas that already support these efforts is very helpful.”

The cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances and offer DP benefits to employees.

But Houston’s form of governance makes this effort unique. While the City Council is empowered to pass city ordinances covering issues of discrimination, they can be overturned by popular vote if those opposing the ordinance collect 20,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

That was the case in 1985 after Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pushed through the council the city’s first protections for gay and lesbian Houstonians (no protections were provided for the bisexual or transgender communities).

A coalition of right-wing voters led by Louie Welch, then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, was able to place the issue on a city-wide ballot, claiming the policy “promoted the homosexual lifestyle.” The group also recruited a “straight slate” of candidates to run against City Council members who had favored the protections, with Welch running against Whitmire.

The public vote on nondiscrimination was held in June 1985 and Welch’s forces prevailed, but the city’s temperament had changed by the time of the City Council and mayoral races in November. A comment of Welch’s that the solution to the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers” was aired on local TV and few in Houston wished to be associated with him after that. The “straight slate” failed to capture a single City Council seat and Whitmire remained mayor, but the defeat of the city’s nondiscrimination policy remained.

By 1998 Houston had changed: Annise Parker was serving as the city’s first out lesbian city council member and Houston boasted the state’s first out gay judge, John Paul Barnich. Mayor Lee Brown, sensing the change, issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. But the city had not changed that much. Councilman Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that since voters rejected city-wide protections from discrimination in 1985, it was inappropriate for the mayor to institute them without voter approval. The city spent the next three years defending the policy in court, finally emerging victorious.

The joy of that 2001 victory would be shortlived, however. That year Houston’s voters approved another amendment to the city charter, this time prohibiting the city from providing domestic partner benefits for city employees. In a narrow defeat, just over 51 percent of voters decided that the city should not offer competitive benefits.

The current proposed non-discrimination amendment would remove the language added in 1985 and 2001. While it would provide non-discrimination protections it would not require the city to offer benefits of any kind to the spouses of LGBT city employees, leaving that question back in the hands of the City Council.

The organizers of the current effort are confident that this year is the year for victory.

Noel Freeman, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which is spearheading the effort, explains that the previous votes occurred in “non-presidential years,”when voter turnout in general is low, and conservative voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate.

Additionally, polling by Equality Texas in 2010 showed that 80 percent of Houstonians support employment protections for gay and lesbian people.

In order to place the non-discrimination amendment on the November ballot the coalition supporting it will need to collect 20,000 signatures of registered Houston voters and submit them to the city clerk. Freeman says that the final charter amendment language is still under consideration and that once it is finalized the group will begin collecting signatures.

Even former Councilman Todd, who once fought the city’s policy of non-discrimination for LGBT employees, supports the current effort.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

El Paso City Council to vote today on overturning ballot initiative that rescinded DP benefits

You gotta love this story out of El Paso.

Last year, the City Council voted to add health benefits for the unmarried partners of city workers, both gay and straight.

Then some anti-gay nutjobs got an initiative on the ballot to rescind the benefits, and it passed.

However, city officials say the wording of the initiative was unclear, likely confusing voters and possibly outlawing benefits for the spouses of retirees. So today the council is poised to overturn the initiative and place a new one on the ballot in May, The El Paso Times reports.

Of course backers of the initiative are crying foul, saying it’s not about the gay thing anymore, but the “will of the people.” And ordinarily we might agree with them, but not when a popular vote has been used to take away people’s rights.

Speaking of which, as long as we’re overturning ballot initiatves based on confusing language, maybe someone ought to take a look at that constitutional amendment that passed a few years back. Sure sounds like it actually banned heterosexual marriage.

—  John Wright

Politico polling readers on the Prop 8 ruling, and the haters are ahead by 16 percentage points

Back in 2008, the state of California let haters put our civil rights to a popular vote. We lost, and the California Constitution was amended to snatch away the rights of same-sex couples to wed.

On Wednesday, federal District Judge Vaughn Walker issued his ruling in a case challenging that amendment — Proposition 8 — and this time , we won. Judge Walker said the majority doesn’t get to take away our rights just because they don’t like us.

Now the public is voting again, this time on Politico.com, in a poll: “What’s your reaction to the decision that reversed California’s ban on gay marriage?” And guess what — we’re losing. The votes so far are “Like. Hurray for equal rights,” 40 percent; “Dislike. How dare the courts reverse the will of the voters?” 56 percent; and “I’m not sure,” 2 percent.

If you want to have your say, go to Politico.com, scroll down to the “Politico” on the lower right side of the page, and vote.

UPDATE: The final result was 57 percent to 41 percent.

—  admin

El Paso priest likens gays to rapists, condemns allies to hell — and the newspaper publishes it

And you thought The Dallas Morning News was bad!

Actually, ever since resident bigot Rod Dreher left, The DMN’s Sunday opinion pages have been largely devoid of any discussion of gay rights, pro or con.

Not so for The El Paso Times, which on Sunday printed this op/ed piece from the Rev. Michael Rodriguez, parish priest at San Juan Bautista Catholic Church.

Going a step further than even the Texas Republican Party platform, Rodriguez begins by suggesting that not only gays — but also those who fail to actively oppose them — are damned to hell:

Any Catholic who supports homosexual acts is, by definition, committing a mortal sin, and placing himself/herself outside of communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Furthermore, a Catholic would be guilty of a most grievous sin of omission if he/she neglected to actively oppose the homosexual agenda, which thrives on deception and conceals its wicked horns under the guises of “equal rights,” “tolerance,” “who am I to judge?,” etc.

Father Rodriguez goes on to say that all “homosexuals” should be treated with “love, understanding, and respect.” But he adds, “At the same time, never forget that genuine love demands that we seek, above all, the salvation of souls. Homosexual acts lead to the damnation of souls.”

Interestingly, Rodriguez concludes by making an argument similar to one we frequently hear from supporters of same-sex marriage — who note that just because a majority of voters support a law, this doesn’t make it constitutional. But Rodriguez makes the argument from the opposite perspective, saying that just because a majority of voters support gay rights, this doesn’t make them morally right. This is a relatively new twist — usually we hear anti-gay voices espousing the virtues of the popular vote — but it’s one we’ll probably see more often as public opinion shifts in our favor:

To simplify: One would have to be ghastly morally decrepit to think that if 51 percent of Americans opine that rape is OK, then rape becomes, in effect, all right. Sure, the majority is politically capable of such a vote, but this could never make rape morally right.

There is such a thing as a corrupt democracy, you know!

Abortion and homosexual acts are unequivocally intrinsic moral evils. And friends, this objective truth doesn’t depend on the opinion of the majority. Frighteningly, if the majority chooses to deny the objective moral order, then we will all suffer the pestiferous consequences.

Bigots are a dime a dozen, so it’s hardly surprising that a Catholic priest in El Paso believes this stuff (insert pedophilia joke here). The  surprising thing is that The El Paso Times would print such garbage.

We’re all for the First Amendment and an open exchange of ideas, but to borrow an analogy from Rodriguez, that doesn’t mean you let rapists write op-ed pieces from prison explaining that, “She was asking for it.”

—  John Wright