San Antonio Passes Far-Reaching Antidiscrimination Measure

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HOUSTON -- Nearly 200 cities across the country have enacted ordinances in recent years that prohibit bias by municipal employees or in city contracts over someone's race, sex, age, religion or sexual orientation. Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth are a few of the Texas cities that adopted such measures.

But in San Antonio, a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity turned into a divisive political battle this summer, the likes of which this liberal-leaning city of 1.4 million has rarely seen in recent decades.

The City Council passed the measure, 8 to 3, on Thursday, capping weeks of heated debate that exposed racial, religious and gay-and-straight divisions and drew the scorn of Republican leaders and candidates around the state who are just starting to position themselves for next spring's primary elections.

The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, who has been running for governor since Gov. Rick Perry announced he was not seeking re-election, weighed in on the issue, expressing his opposition. The state agriculture commissioner, Todd Staples, who is running for lieutenant governor -- and who as a state senator sponsored the constitutional amendment that passed in 2005 that defined marriage in Texas as between one man and one woman -- also spoke out against it.

They said it would trample religious liberties by suppressing the views of those who oppose homosexuality or same-sex marriage for religious reasons, a claim supporters of the measure deny.

"I consider this an attempt to impose a liberal value system over the objection of millions of Texans," Mr. Staples said. "It actually discriminates against those with deeply held religious views by pushing this agenda to the extreme."

All of the major statewide elected positions are open contests in the Republican primary. And while voters do not head to the polls until March, many Republicans seeking statewide office have seized on San Antonio's ordinance in what some see as a way to appeal to the grass-roots conservatives who make up the bulk of the electorate in the party's Texas primaries.

"It is Republican statewide candidates signaling their base that they are true and trustworthy conservatives," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "When you're running for statewide office, you don't control what the San Antonio mayor and Council do. So all you're really doing is taking an ideological position that you then project toward the Republican primary electorate, so that they can see that you're a social conservative and you are manning the ramparts against undesirable social change."

There appeared to be other political reasons that the debate became closely watched.

Republicans sought to engage San Antonio's mayor, Julián Castro, who supported the measure and has become one of the few Democrats in a Republican-dominated state with star power, political science professors said. A number of Democrats want Mr. Castro, who gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, to run for statewide office. The debate over the ordinance became as much about challenging Mr. Castro's vision for San Antonio and his future ambitions as it was about gay rights.

"An issue that otherwise would primarily be confined to local media coverage and some protests by social conservatives has taken on a state and even national level scope, and that's due to the fact that Julián Castro is involved," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Republican officials and others seeking to defeat the ordinance said their opposition had nothing to do with politics. They described it as a thinly veiled attack on those who hold traditional rather than liberal values.

Mr. Abbott, the attorney general, sent a letter to Mr. Castro stating that passage of the ordinance would most likely "envelope the city in costly litigation," though he stopped short of suggesting the state would challenge it in court. Mr. Abbott wrote that the measure conflicts with the Constitution, because it threatens to remove from office any city official who shows a bias "by word or deed" based on sexual orientation.

"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," Mr. Abbott wrote.

The ordinance adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from bias, including race, religion, age and disability. It affects city employees, city contracts, housing and city officials as well as members of municipal boards and commissions. It also applies to restaurants and other businesses, making it unlawful to deny anyone any services available to the general public on the basis of sexual orientation or any of the other protected classes. Language was added that no person or group was required to support or advocate "any particular lifestyle or religious view."

The tone of the debate has been sharp. Supporters and opponents held dueling news conferences on the front and back steps of City Hall. Hundreds flooded the Council chambers to speak for or against the measure, with supporters dressed in red shirts and opponents in blue.

Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who voted against it, angered supporters when secretly recorded comments she made to staff members about gays and lesbians became public in The San Antonio Express-News. She called homosexuality "disgusting" and said gays should not be allowed to adopt. She has since defended her remarks.

Mr. Castro said the passage of the ordinance by the 11-member Council proved that San Antonio belongs to everyone, regardless of the stance of Republican leaders. "It's not surprising during campaign season that politicians from outside the city would chime in on an issue like this," he said. "I respect their perspective, but we did what's in the best interest of San Antonio."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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