Partnership endorses anti-discrimination ordinance

Apr. 29, 2014Houston Chronicle

The Greater Houston Partnership came out in support of Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed equal rights ordinance, giving the measure a boost as it heads to a City Council committee hearing on Wednesday.

Parker plans to put the measure before the full City Council for a vote next week.

The Partnership initially had reservations about the sweeping anti-discrimination proposal, aimed at private businesses as well as city employment and contracting, but President Bob Harvey said most of the group’s concerns had been addressed by the time the mayor’s office released a draft of the ordinance last week. The Partnership’s executive committee voted unanimously on Friday to support the proposal.

“The business community and the community in general views our city as remarkably diverse and welcoming,” Harvey said. “I think this ordinance is consistent with what this city stands for.”

The measure would ban discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, family status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as federal laws do. Parker’s proposal also would cover sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition to private businesses, the ordinance would apply to housing, city employment and city contracting.

Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

Religious institutions would be exempt. Businesses with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt from the employment provisions; some private clubs and organizations would be excepted from the public accommodation requirements.

City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who worked closely with the mayor on the proposal and will lead Wednesday’s hearing before the council’s Quality of Life Committee, said the measure reflects extensive conversations with community groups during the past few months.

“I think this is the 14th draft of the ordinance,” Cohen said. “I don’t think I’m going to hear any major changes, something nobody’s thought of. I think it’s just going to be people stating their support of it, or concerns with it or some suggestions for tweaking.”

Business, political and civil rights activists for weeks have been mustering supporters for an anticipated battle over the details, particularly the provisions regarding protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sexual predator fears

Major Republican donor Steven Hotze sent an email from his Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC that dubbed the proposal “Parker’s Sexual Predator Protection Act,” suggesting the measure will create a loophole to allow people to lie about their gender to enter bathrooms where they could attack women and children. He also wrote against protections based on sexual orientation.

“This would make those who engage in deviant sexual acts a new minority class equal to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other legitimate minorities. This is a slap in the face of true minorities,” the email read.

Dave Welch, of the Houston Area Pastor Council, echoed Hotze in saying the ordinance is a solution to a problem that does not exist and that the true reason for Parker’s proposal is to force the Houston community to accept her same-sex marriage.

Bigotry accusation

Maverick Welsh, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, said he is not surprised by the arguments raised by opponents and that bathroom assaults never materialized in other cities that have passed similar measures.

“They’re masking their bigotry in this restroom issue,” he said. “Houston is behind the times among major cities.”

If supporters, mainly civil rights groups, have complaints, it is that the proposal does not do enough.

While planning a rally for before Wednesday’s hearing, Welsh said the GLBT caucus and other groups discussed asking the council to restore a provision creating a Human Rights Commission to hear public complaints and to match other Texas cities by including private businesses with more than 15 employees rather than 50.

Statistical question

Harvey said the Greater Houston Partnership sought to remove the commission during multiple conversations with the mayor and city attorney in recent weeks. The group worried that, if created, the reputation of area businesses could be harmed by unverified complaints and that it could make it appear discrimination is a larger problem in Houston than it actually is.

“We felt like all of that was inappropriate given we have a city that does value diversity and doesn’t need a commission to tell us that,” Harvey said.

Councilman Oliver Pennington said he remains uncertain whether the proposal is even needed.

“I’m anti-regulation, generally, so I’ve been asking for some statistical information from other cities,” he said. “If there’s not a lot of discrimination going on – I do not know if there is or not – is it wise to enact?”

Parker is visiting Australia this week and could not be reached for comment.