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Houston Council Delays Vote on Equal-Rights Law

Friday May 16, 2014

Houston leaders on Wednesday delayed a vote on a nondiscrimination measure that has become a flashpoint for protesters as supporters of the law seek to extend protections for gay and transgender people.

The city council was scheduled to vote on the ordinance but ultimately chose to postpone any action until May 28 so that the public can provide more input.

Mayor Annise Parker and other supporters want to ban discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, age, religion, disability and for an array of other categories, even obscure ones such as discrimination based on one's genetic composition. Federal law already bans discriminatory practices in many of the categories.
Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

The debate over restrooms is similar to the discussions around the city of San Antonio's nondiscrimination ordinance that passed last year. Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso have similar ordinances. Houston is the largest city in the country and the only major city in Texas without any nondiscrimination ordinance.

On Tuesday, various pastors along with several hundred people gathered outside Houston City Hall to protest the proposed ordinance. Until then, hearings on the ordinance had gone without the acrimony that marked passage of a similar ordinance in San Antonio last year.

Those who protested the ordinance said the measure would infringe on their religious liberties to speak out against what they called the gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyle.

Supporters of the ordinance, including Parker, who is openly gay, said the measure is about offering protections at the local level against all forms of discrimination.

The proposal would consolidate city bans on discrimination based on sex, race, age and religion, and increase protections for gay and transgender residents.

But the debate has focused largely on provisions regarding rights for gay and transgender citizens.

Parker proposed a nondiscrimination ordinance and a Human Rights Commission in her state of the city address in April. Her ordinance was in committee by the end of the month and first heard by the council on May 6. It has widespread support among councilmembers.

"Within the next two weeks I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness," Councilman Dwight Boykins said.

Although councilors did not vote on the package Wednesday, they did act on various amendments to the ordinance.

For instance, councilors chose to apply the ordinance to private companies with at least 25 workers, rather than the initial 50. After two years companies with at least 15 workers must comply with nondiscrimination provisions.

Officials also took steps to ensure the ordinance does not interfere with senior or veteran discounts, nor with municipal contracts that benefit small businesses owned by minorities.

Religious institutions would be exempt from the law.

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