A skirmish in the ongoing and often manufactured culture wars is taking place down Interstate 35 in San Antonio, where the City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on an ordinance that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposal has generated intense debate, and Republican candidates running for statewide office, sensing an opportunity to burnish their conservative bona fides and raise a little campaign money in the process, have jumped into the fray, exacerbating public divisions.
San Antonio’s fight over the proposed ordinance that would protect gays, lesbians and transgender individuals from discrimination in hiring, housing, public accommodations and so on is amusing in at least one way: Dozens of cities went through similar battles 10 to 20 years ago. If our calendar didn’t tell us it was 2013, we’d think we were reading about an anti-gay bias debate in 2003 — or 1993. San Antonio is a lot behind the times on this issue.
“We are not breaking new ground or doing anything revolutionary,” City Council Member Diego Bernal, a main supporter of the ordinance, wrote recently. “We are merely doing what more than 180 cities and towns have done, which is to say that everyone deserves to live free from discrimination. Houston, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Ft. Worth, Waco and Brownsville already have theirs in place. Every member of our community deserves the same.”
Nonetheless, San Antonio’s proposal has generated heated, emotional debate. And the battle against the ordinance began to move outside San Antonio when City Council Member Elisa Chan was caught on tape making anti-gay comments and then defended her remarks as her right to free speech.
“You know, to be quite honest, I know this is not politically correct,” Chan was recorded saying, in a story published by the San Antonio Express-News. “I never bought that you are born, that you are born gay. I just can’t imagine it.”
Chan’s imagination apparently needs a biology lesson. Still, numerous Republicans running for office statewide rushed in to express their own views on the matter. Attorney General Greg Abbott, running for governor, declared the ordinance “would not prevent discrimination, but impose it: stifling speech, repressing religious liberty, and imposing burdens on those who hold a traditional view on human relations.”
The three Republicans running to replace Abbott as attorney general — state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman — practically stumbled over themselves to condemn the proposed ordinance. “Everyone is to be treated equal, no one is to be discriminated against, but listing these items after race, color, religion and national origin is an attempt to elevate (gay people) to the same status,” Smitherman said.
Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, who is running for lieutenant governor, said San Antonio’s proposal ran “counter to the Holy Bible and the United States Constitution.” Patrick is from Houston, which adopted its own nondiscrimination ordinance more than a decade ago.
The ubiquitous U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was asked his views on the ordinance. He found it “encouraging to see so many Texans standing up to defend their religious freedoms in light of the misguided proposal put forth by the local city council.”
Renea Hicks, an Austin attorney who specializes in election and constitutional law, told the Express-News that opponents’ focus on faith discrimination “turned the issue of religious freedom on its head.”
“Because of their religious views, they don’t want something to be a law, which is in effect saying religious views should dictate what the law is, which is the opposite of what the Constitution says,” Hicks said.
San Antonio’s city code protects religion – along with race, color, sex, age, national origin and disability – from discrimination. And the proposed ordinance was tweaked to assuage concerns expressed by the city’s religious leaders. Last month television evangelist John Hagee told the members of his Cornerstone Church that he no longer opposed the ordinance after changes were made. Dozens of other religious leaders also have expressed support for it.
Life in the almost 200 American cities that already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances on the books has gone on as before. We suspect that our neighbors in San Antonio, should the city decide to pass its proposed ordinance, also soon will wonder what all the fuss was about.