HOUSTON (BP) -- Calling a controversial nondiscrimination ordinance "intensely personal," Houston Mayor Annise Parker begrudgingly voted Wednesday (May 14) to delay consideration of the proposal that would give protected status to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Houston City Council will consider the measure when it reconvenes May 28.
But Parker, an open lesbian, suggested the main point of contention is irreconcilable.
"The idea that we're going to be able to resolve an issue where someone can come before this body and say 'I must have the right to discriminate in order to follow my religion,' I don't think you're going to be able to resolve in the next two weeks," Parker told council members, with an emphatic inflection on the words "must have."
"And so we are going to have to make a hard vote."
The 12-5 vote delaying consideration came after three public hearings on the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, which confers protected status based on "sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy." Proponents say it is unconscionable that Houston is the only major American city without such a code.
But opponents argue the proposal merely duplicates existing state and federal laws, calling it a "Trojan Horse" and a "smoke screen" that surreptitiously codifies protected status for homosexuals and transgender people in ways that encroach on the rights of others.
The most hotly-contested portion of the ordinance would allow transgender men and women to use the public bathrooms and locker rooms for the gender with which they identify. Although Parker removed one section of the public accommodation code that explicitly made such allowances, another section remains that would still allow a man who identifies as a woman to use a women's public restroom, and vice versa.
Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, which represents 300 churches, called the move a "bait and switch."
Opposition to the proposed ordinance comes from a racially diverse group of pastors and citizens, including a former Southern Baptist Convention president.
Calling the proposed ordinance a "staggering moral issue," Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, said in an open letter to his church and community, "The verbiage of the proposed ordinance is couched in non-discrimination language but, without question, discriminates against people, like you and me, who want to live by our own personal convictions."
The ordinance, Young contends, seeks to elevate sexual orientation and gender identity to a constitutionally protected class.
A call to action by Houston area pastors drew an estimated 2,000 people to the steps of City Hall at noon Tuesday (May 13) prior to the regularly scheduled City Council public hearing.
"We should not even have to be here," Max Miller, pastor of Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Baptist Ministers' Association of Houston and Vicinity, told the crowd.
Miller called the ordinance an insult to the intelligence of those who fought for civil rights in America. He said gay rights advocates charged opponents with being divisive. Gesturing to the crowd of African Americans, Asians, Anglos, and Hispanics, Miller said, "As you have seen we stand together."
Eighty-six-year-old F.N. Williams Sr., pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston since 1958, told the rally, "Civil rights was a movement for racial equality, not sexual choices."
Khanh Huynh, pastor of Vietnamese Baptist Church, told those gathered that he represents 13 people groups and he fled communist Vietnam as one of hundreds of thousands of "boat people" seeking freedom of speech and religion in America. But the proposed ordinance, Huynh said, threatens those liberties.
"It is worse than communism, which I have run away from," he said.
Huynh later asked the City Council how they could justify violating the rights of one group in the cause of "equal rights" for others. Critics said the ordinance would force Christians, especially business owners, to choose between biblical convictions and the law.
Testimony during Tuesday's public hearing carried on into the evening.
On Wednesday morning, the council spent 90 minutes discussing and passing five of eight proposed amendments to the ordinance. Another amendment, dealing with the public accommodations, was tagged for later consideration.
Before the council voted to delay a vote of the ordinance, Councilman Dwight Boykins said the two-week interim would allow the council to confer with their constituents. During Tuesday's public hearings many speakers criticized the process as much as the content of the ordinance, noting frustration at the lack of public input.
Boykins said the city would heal from the divisiveness and no one should take personally the differing opinions of others.
But Parker took exception to his comment.
"It is my life that is being discussed," she said emphatically.
Noting that the ordinance applies to a range of protected groups, Parker concluded, "The debate is about me. The debate is about two gay men at this table. It is very intensely personal and I do not think it is appropriate to forget that."
Parker did not name the two councilmen.
"I know you say it's about you, but, mayor, this is really about all of us," said Councilman Michael Kubosh to cheers from the council chamber. "It's not really about you, it's about everybody here. It's about everyone in the council chamber one way or the other. It's going to have an impact on us."
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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