by Mary Tuma
Nearly 500 people signed up to testify for or against the city's proposed non-discrimination ordinance. Photo by Mary Tuma
At around 1 p.m., the line for Citizens to be Heard stretched three blocks. Hundreds arrived, some bused from out of town, to deliver testimony for or against a controversial potential law granting equal protection in public accommodations, hiring, firing, city employment and contracts and board and commission appointments for LGBT residents. As the Current previously reported, oftentimes heated and emotional Citizens to be Heard meetings have become the battleground for those on both sides, with the number registered to testify growing by the week. Yesterday evening was no exception—nearly 500 residents signed up to voice their opinion during a hearing that lasted until midnight.
City Attorney Michael Bernard began the B Session conversation by laying out the details of the NDO—what it will and won’t do—and answered a series of questions from council members. Bernard noted in his presentation that nothing in the NDO, “shall be construed as supporting or advocating any particular lifestyle or religious view,” and that to the contrary, it is meant to make sure, “all persons be treated fairly and equally.” Bernard stressed the ordinance contained in it a religious exemption, that fair housing rules are modeled after U.S. and Texas Fair Housing Acts and that the NDO does not regulate, speech, religion or political activity.
Council members Shirley Gonzales, Ray Lopez, Cris Medina and Ron Nirenberg—who have already publicly expressed their support for the NDO reiterated that they’d back it up come voting time. Those with question marks above their heads—council members Ivy Taylor and Rebecca Viagran– appeared to lean toward a no vote, or at least showed they needed more clarification and additional answers before a certain decision. Late last night, City Hall insiders seemed certain that Taylor would vote against the ordinance.
Not surprisingly, it was council members Cartlon Soules and Elisa Chan who aggressively challenged the ordinance’s merits. Chan consistently referred to the ordinance as “confusing” and rife with “unintended consequences.” When she made the claim “no one should face discrimination” shouts of “Liar!” and “You should be removed!” emanated from the crowd. The council woman suggested the ordinance amounted to thought-control and forced “political correctness.”
First proposed by Chan and seconded by Soules, a suggestion to place the ordinance on a ballot for voters instead of passing it through council ignited wild cheers from the blue-clad conservatives in the audience.
Dressed in red, LGBT rights activists chanted outside city council chambers while a debate over the equality measure waged inside. Photo by Mary Tuma
While Bernard deconstructed much of the myth purported from the right-wing by simply presenting the facts, testimony that followed latched on to misguided notions. For instance, several anti-NDO testifiers claimed the ordinance would infringe on freedom of speech and religion. However, the clause they refer to, “Prior Discriminatory Acts”, which would have barred someone from holding office if it was found that they engaged in LGBT discrimination by “word or deed” was removed from the text. Those opposed to the NDO also criticized the ordinance for violating the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, just hours before Bernard refuted allegations of unconstitutionality.
Council member Diego Bernal, the ordinance’s author, stressed the NDO evolved over a long and transparent process, with compromise on both sides of the aisle. One such compromise is a recently added clause that excludes “restrooms, shower rooms and similar facilities” from the ordinance. The addition is a result of clamoring from the right-wing about the potential for a sexual predator to disguise as the opposite gender and enter bathrooms, thus endangering those inside. The argument, LGBT activists say, rests on offensive false assumptions and is backed by little to no evidence. Local gay rights groups announced their disappointment with the revision, calling the language “discriminatory.”
Judging by the decibel level in city council chambers, anti-gay activists have catapulted council member Elisa Chan to poster-child status in their fight against the measure to ensure equality for all residents, shocking and dismaying LGBT rights supporters. Each time she spoke, and even as she simply walked across the council dais, Chan was met with thunderous applause, cheers and at times, a standing ovation. This is the same Chan that was recently caught making homophobic and ignorant remarks about the LGBT community on a secret recording. Her offensive remarks appear to have only galvanized conservative and right-wing supporters, who came in droves donning blue attire and forming prayer circles outside city hall grounds.
Before the hearing, a small congregation of the anti-NDO camp held a press conference to rehash their complaints and concerns. Religious leaders and conservative activists argued the ordinance would “criminalizes” Christian values.
Blue-clad anti-NDO activists hold a press conference and criticize the ordinance for "criminalizing" Christian values. Photo by Mary Tuma
Alice Patterson with Justice at the Gate, a local evangelical Christian political group, said the NDO makes free speech and freedom of expression unlawful and that city council should remove itself from the “value manipulation business.” She sympathized with Chan, saying the real discrimination is coming from the “other side.”(It’s worthy to note Patterson also believes the Democratic Party is an, “invisible network of evil” controlled by demonic forces.)
Last night’s B session was the first time full council met to discuss the NDO. A vote on the measure is expected next Thursday.