A citywide debate over whether lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals should be included in San Antonio’s non-discrimination policy came to a fiery end on Thursday.
Before a crowd of hundreds at City Hall, the San Antonio City Council adopted an ordinance aimed at preventing discrimination against people because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
After months of controversy and hours of public testimony, the San Antonio City Council passed the ordinance on an 8 to 3 vote. Hundreds of people wearing blue (signifying their opposition to the ordinance) and red (those who supported the ordinance) testified for about seven hours Wednesday and more than two hours Thursday morning.
Council members Elisa Chan, Carlton Soules and Ivy Taylor voted against the ordinance.
San Antonio is one of the only major Texas cities that does not offer some protections for LGBT individuals. Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston all have policies that offer some protections.
The ordinance, which goes into effect immediately, prevents the city and local businesses from discriminating against LGBT individuals. Proponents have claimed that before the ordinance, LGBT individuals could be kicked out of public places at the owner’s discretion. In a separate motion, the Council also voted to add veteran status to the city’s non-discrimination policy.
San Antonio’s ordinance also prevents public officials from demonstrating bias against LGBT individuals while acting in their official duties, though it does not specify what is considered discrimination. The ordinance also prohibits people who are awarded city contracts from discriminating against LGBT individuals.
Mayor Julian Castro supported the ordinance and said that although the ordinance has stirred up passions on both sides, the atmosphere has been similar every time people have sought equality in history.
“This city has a lot going for it and I believe that this ordinance will help ensure that everybody in our city is treated equally,” Castro said. “You’re going to be treated the same way, whether you’re Christian, white, Hispanic or whether you’re part of the LGBT community.”
The ordinance is expected to meet legal opposition from some conservative groups. Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a veiled threat to Castro in a letter Wednesday, saying the ordinance will force the city into costly litigation.
Among other things, Abbott said the ordinance violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution by threatening to remove any appointed city official who discriminated against a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The obvious problem with this provision is that it allows government to impose thought and speech control over any city official or board or commission member who may hold deep religious beliefs that are counter to the ordinance,” Abbott said.
San Antonio’s ordinance has become a political football for Texas politicians over the past few weeks, prompting condemnation from Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. All the candidates for state attorney general have also weighed in and blasted the ordinance, including state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney and Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman.
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, said the ordinance will allow transgender people to go into a men’s restroom one day and a women’s restroom another. Many people speaking before the council echoed Saenz, but council members refuted their claims.
“We’ve seen how that has played out in other parts of the country where people have been persecuted for disagreeing with a homosexual lifestyle,” Saenz said. “People have been forced to photograph gay wedding ceremonies in states where they do not even recognize homosexual marriage. We’ve seen the real force of government be used against people of faith.”
But Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said the ordinance is about fairness and equality for all people and not intended to discriminate against religion. Smith also shook off Abbott’s threats of legal action and said there is nothing unconstitutional about the ordinance.
“The ordinance is no different than ordinances that exist in other Texas cities and in almost 180 cities across the country,” Smith said. “Preventing discrimination is not unconstitutional - it is the right thing to do.”
While Abbott did not specify whether the state would file a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio, his warning was clear in the letter to Castro.
“If the city ignores this advice and adopts the proposed ordinance, legal action will surely follow,” Abbott wrote.