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

Action Alert: Texas Senate panel to consider funding for HIV/AIDS drug program

Resource Center Dallas is calling on people to contact members of the Texas Senate Finance Committee and ask them to fully fund the state’s HIV Medication Program. The Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the funding on Thursday, according to RCD.

As we noted last week, a Senate finance subcommittee did not list the HIV Medication Program as one of its top priorities when making its recommendations last week. Unless the state Legislature provides an additional $19.2 million for the program over the next two years, the state will have to cut off enrollment or restrict access. The program currently provides life-sustaining medication to 14,000 low-income people with HIV/AIDS.

From the Resource Center moments ago:

ACTION ALERT! Tomorrow the Senate Finance Committee will consider funding the Texas HIV Medication Program.

We must let the committee members know that if they fail to fund the Texas HIV Medication Program people will not have access to the drugs that keep them alive.

We are asking you to make three phone calls to key Senators on the Senate Finance Committee. The message is simple-

“I am asking you to fully fund the Texas HIV Medication Program.  The lives of thousands of Texans depend on it.”

Senator Steve Ogden  512.463.0105

Senator Juan Hinojosa 512.463.0120

Senator Jane Nelson    512.463.0112

We are asking you to make these calls now!  The vote is scheduled to take place on Thursday morning. In addition to your own action, please reach out to your networks: email lists, Facebook, Twitter, co-workers and friends.

—  John Wright

Maryland lawmakers get cold feet on marriage

Del. Sam Arora

Despite supporters’ high hopes, Maryland delegates send bill back to committee; marriage equality faces promise, threats in other states

DANA RUDOLPH  |  Keen News Service
lisakeen@mac.com

The road to marriage equality in Maryland had never been a short or smooth one, but supporters of allowing same-sex couples to marry could see the altar this time: passing the House and sending the bill to a governor who said he would sign it.

But supporters never had a clear majority, and some who had said they would back it got cold feet in the days leading up to the House vote.

On March 11, instead of voting for the bill, the House unanimously voted to send it back to committee. Even some LGBT activists conceded it was the thing to do.

The Maryland vote reduced to two the number of states that could possibly see marriage equality move through the state legislature this year: Rhode Island and New York.

Iowa could lose existing marriage equality rights through actions in the legislature this year, and six states that already have statutes that prevent same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses — Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — could add constitutional amendments to protect the bans from legal challenges.

An attempt to do so in Wyoming died in committee in February.

Equality Maryland, the state’s leading LGBT advocacy group, said in a statement that, although they are “disappointed” the bill didn’t pass, sending it back to committee was “a strategic step that will allow us to fight and win in the future.”

Board member David Lublin explained to Maryland Politics Watch (Maryland-Politics.Blogspot.com) that, if the bill failed in a vote on the merits, it would have been harder later to convert the delegates who had already voted no in public.

And a coalition of groups including Equality Maryland, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry and Gill Action released a joint statement after the vote, saying, “Over the past several days it has become clear that additional time to continue the marriage conversation in the state will better position the Civil Marriage Protection Act for success.”

The full Senate had passed its version of the bill on a vote of 25 to 22 Feb. 24.  Action then moved to the House, where the Judiciary Committee had voted 12-10 on March 4 to send the bill to the floor, even though committee chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Democrat, who cast the deciding vote to do so, indicated he would not support marriage equality on the floor.

Support for the bill had already grown shakier. Committee member Sam Arora, a Democrat and an original co-sponsor, had said March 3 he would vote against it on the floor, and he only wanted to send it to the full House so voters could have their say in a likely referendum.

The state constitution allows voters to submit new laws to a referendum if they can collect the 55,736 signatures necessary to do so.

And Democratic Delegates Tiffany Alston and Jill Carter — both co-sponsors — were no-shows at the first scheduled committee vote.

Alston said she wanted more time to weigh her decision based on diverse feedback from constituents and others. Carter said she was just trying to draw attention to other legislation.

Alston eventually voted against sending the bill to the floor, but Carter voted in favor of doing so.

Sponsor Melvin Stukes, a Democrat who was not on the Judiciary committee, announced at the end of February that he was withdrawing his sponsorship. He said he had come to realize that the bill would grant full marriage equality instead of civil unions.

Three days before the full House vote, the bill was still “probably one to two short” of the 71 votes needed for passage, said Democratic Delegate Heather Mizeur in an interview March 8, adding, “There is still a large block of undecided who will go to the floor undecided.”

Democrats hold a 98 to 43 majority in the chamber.

Even Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has said he would sign the bill, appeared to shift towards the idea of a voter referendum — something equality advocates have shunned.

O’Malley told reporters March 3, “We should let the people decide,” according to the Baltimore Sun. After the bill was recommitted, he told the Associated Press, “I would have hoped that we could have resolved this issue and then let the people decide.”

The full House vote came after nearly four hours of debate on March 9 and 11. Debate centered around religious beliefs regarding homosexuality, whether the LGBT community’s political movement for equal rights could be compared to that of African-Americans, and whether same-sex marriage would negatively impact children.

Delegate Mizeur, in one of the most personal speeches during debate, spoke of reconciling her deep Catholic faith with being a lesbian. She said that, if the bill failed, it would not stop her and her wife from loving each other, but the lack of legal protections would “make it really, really difficult for us in the worst, most challenging times.”

Committee Chair Vallario asked, “Where would Martin Luther King be on this issue?”

“I don’t know,” he said, but the introduced a motion to recommit the bill to his Judiciary Committee. The House unanimously approved.

One other bill remaining in that committee seeks to ask voters to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages. Spokespeople for both the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Don Dwyer, a Republican, and Vallario could not say whether that bill would receive a vote before the session ends April 11.

In the remaining states, the Rhode Island House and Senate Judiciary Committees have held hearings on marriage equality bills in recent weeks, but neither chamber has yet scheduled a vote.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will urge the legislature to take up marriage equality this session. He met with LGBT advocates March 9 to discuss the matter.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Will civil unions delay gay marriage in Illinois?

As state Legislature sends bill to governor’s desk, some wonder whether new legal status will make it harder to achieve full equality

CHRISTOPHER WILLS and CARLA K. JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — Gay rights advocates celebrated Wednesday, Dec. 1 as the state Legislature voted to legalize civil unions, although some wondered whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.

The state Senate approved the legislation 32-24, sending it to Gov. Pat Quinn. It passed despite complaints from some senators that civil unions threaten the sanctity of marriage or increase the cost of doing business in Illinois.

After Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage — the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won’t recognize the civil unions at all.

Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.

Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they’ll be a step toward full marriage.

“The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal,” said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.

But even advocates acknowledge it’s possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.

The sponsors of the civil unions bill said Wednesday they don’t plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.

“As soon as the governor signs it, it’s the law of the state of Illinois and that’s what we’re going to live with and going to make work,” said state Sen. David Koehler.

The executive director of a gay community center in Chicago said he welcomes civil unions but worries the legislation may stall ultimate approval of same-sex marriage. Modesto Valle of the Center on Halsted said it will take “tremendous work” to turn civil unions into “a platform to move toward marriage equality” in Illinois.

Courtney Reid, 48, of Chicago said she and her partner of 12 years have decided they won’t pursue a civil union, preferring to wait until same-sex marriage is recognized by federal law and homosexual couples get all the tax benefits and other rights available to heterosexual couples.

“It’s a stand on principle for us,” Reid said.

Supporters presented the civil unions legislation as a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents. With civil unions, state law will treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance.

“It’s time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch,” said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston.

Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages. They said civil unions are basically marriage by another name and that they could give the courts a reason to step in and order Illinois to allow full marriage to everyone.

Some senators also criticized the time being spent on civil unions at a time when the state faces a massive budget crisis.

“Here we are, forced to debate an issue that may be political payback to a small but very politically powerful special interest group,” said state Sen. Chris Lauzen. He called gay sexual activities dangerous and questioned whether the state has a role in regulating relationships that don’t produce children.

State Sen. Rickey Hendon accused some opponents of hypocrisy.

“I hear adulterers and womanizers and folks cheating on their wives and down-low brothers saying they’re going to vote against this bill. It turns my stomach,” he said. “We know what you do at night, and you know too.”

The Illinois Family Institute said legislators failed to examine the legislation clearly.

“Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues,” said executive director David E. Smith.

Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders fought civil unions vigorously. Conservative groups also lobbied to block the measure. They argued it could hurt religious institutions.

The measure wouldn’t require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but critics fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees’ partners.

The law won’t take effect until June 1, assuming Quinn signs it. Having it take effect immediately would have required approval by three-fifths of legislators.

Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he’s looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.

“To those who say it’s a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, ‘I hope so,”’ said Edwards of Or Chadash synagogue. “I would like to be on a slippery slope that slides in the direction of justice.”

The Rev. Vernice Thorn, associate pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. “Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

——————————————————————————————————————-

Illinois lawmakers have approved civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and Gov. Pat Quinn says he’ll sign the measure into law. Civil unions would provide many of the benefits of marriage but not all of them. The chief difference is that the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, so federal programs treat gay partners as if they are completely unrelated.

Here are some examples of how different types of couples would generally be treated under the law, based on interviews with the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, a gay rights group.

Ability to visit partner in the hospital and make medical decisions

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil Unions: Yes

Joint filing of federal taxes

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil Unions: No

Joint filing of state taxes

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Varies

• Civil Unions: Not in Illinois (But Illinois’ flat-rate tax removes any advantage of joint filing.)

Right to sue over partner’s death

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil Unions: Yes

Receive Social Security payments upon partner’s death

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil Unions: No

Immigration rights for foreign partner

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil Unions: No

Inherit partner’s property without paying federal estate taxes

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil Unions: No

Employer provides health insurance to worker’s partner

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil Unions: Unclear

Right to live together in nursing homes

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil Unions: Yes

Religious institution required to recognize relationship

• Heterosexual marriage: No

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil Unions: No

Right to officially dissolve relationship in court

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil Unions: Yes

Pension benefits for surviving partner

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil unions: Yes

Federal benefits for partner of military veteran

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil unions: No

State benefits for partner of military veteran

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil unions: Yes

Both partners automatically considered legal parents of children in the relationship

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: Yes

• Civil unions: Yes

Other states automatically recognize relationship as official

• Heterosexual marriage: Yes

• Same-sex marriage: No

• Civil unions: No

—  John Wright