If the experience of other Texas cities is any guide, the Houston City Council’s possible passage of an equal rights ordinance Wednesday would not inundate city investigators with piles of new discrimination complaints.
Under the proposal, city officials would only investigate complaints that state or federal agencies have no jurisdiction over or where no local remedy is available.
Feldman acknowledged other Texas cities have not seen a slew of such complaints, but said even if complaints are rare, that does not make the passage of the ordinance an empty gesture.
“These ordinances serve an important purpose in making a public statement against discrimination,” Feldman said, “and the belief is that the very existence of the law encourages compliance and nondiscrimination.”
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said there should be no correlation between the volume of expected complaints and the importance of the proposal.
“What would be the number? If one person is discriminated against, then we shouldn’t pass an ordinance?” she said. “If seven people are discriminated against, might we pass an ordinance? How about if it’s 17? Where discrimination occurs, we need protection.”
Citizens have not discussed the measure as though its impact would be muted, packing City Hall twice in the last week to debate the measure for hours on end.
Supporters tearfully have praised the idea as a way to combat injustice, while opponents accuse Mayor Annise Parker – the first openly gay mayor of a major American city – of pushing the measure to benefit supporters. They raise the spectre of the ordinance, to some extent, incurring God’s wrath.
The proposal 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, and also would cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
The measure would extend to private businesses with 50 or more workers, businesses that serve the public, housing, city employment and city contracting; churches would be exempt.
A modest addition?
Houston handles discrimination complaints from city employees and sends a hundred housing complaints to federal authorities each year, Feldman said. The work added by protecting sexual orientation and gender identity and covering places of public accommodation may be modest.
Less than half of 1 percent of the housing complaints Fort Worth received last year were based on sexual orientation, and the city received no employment claims based on sexual orientation, according to an annual report
Fort Worth has received five complaints against places of public accommodation in the last two years; Austin typically sees three or fewer per year.
“The fact that it creates a scheme that is almost entirely voluntary compliance doesn’t reduce the value or the effect of it,” said Jonathan Babiak of Austin’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office. “Many, many people are going to comply just because it’s the law.”
Since passing its nondiscrimination ordinance last fall, San Antonio has learned of three incidents of alleged discrimination in areas other than housing, all against transgender or gay residents. The events, one involving a city contractor and two involving businesses that serve the public, have not yet resulted in formal complaints, said deputy city attorney Veronica Zertuche. One city employee also has filed a complaint based on sexual orientation, she said.
In El Paso, deputy city attorney Laura Gordon said she is aware of two incidents of alleged discrimination in places of public accommodation, both from gay couples, and neither of which resulted in a complaint. El Paso does not cover private employment.
Feldman said a Dallas official reported that city has received 12 complaints not related to housing in the decade that its ordinance has been in effect.
Feldman said he foresees Houston fielding more employment and public accommodation complaints than other cities, due, in part, to its size.
“We’ve never had it before, and now people will say, ‘Ah, there’s a remedy here,’ ” Feldman said. “But I also think it will dissipate in time.”
Houston’s added workload also would be limited by its exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Fort Worth and Austin exempt businesses of 15 or fewer employees, matching federal and state laws. Texas Workforce Commission data show 29 percent of the state’s private workforce is employed by firms with fewer than 50 workers.
Houston GLBT Political Caucus president Maverick Welsh and others want the 50-worker exemption dropped to 15. “I’m very optimistic,” Welsh told the council Tuesday. “I believe you’ll do the right thing.”
Parker and 11 of the 16 City Council members agreed last fall to support a nondiscrimination ordinance. Some members have expressed concerns about the item, however.
Councilwoman Brenda Stardig released a statement Tuesday saying the measure “does nothing more than duplicate existing laws, add bureaucracy, and highlight the city’s endless overstepping of their jurisdiction.”