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Houston Council Committee holds hearing on equal rights ordinance

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At a meeting before a packed City Council Chamber Wednesday April 30, the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Council Member Ellen Cohen, held its first hearing on the Parker Administration's Equal Rights Ordinance.

City Attorney David Feldman began the meeting with an hour-long presentation reviewed key elements of each section of the 27-page ordinance. He stated that the current version is the 14th draft of the ordinance. The law would apply to City Contracts, all “brick-and-mortar” commercial establishments offering public services and accommodations, and private sector businesses with at least 50 employees. Religious organizations would be exempt from the law with respect to employment.

The proposed ordinance protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and gender traits. Attorney Feldman also took account of criticism of the ordinance from various sources including outgoing Harris County Republican County, who called the measure the “Sexual predator protection act”, alleging that it would grant a right of cross-dressing male predators to enter female bathrooms. But Feldman stated that the law assured a “good faith” defense of any establishment to prohibit anyone from entering a restroom who did not appear to be of the designated gender. Further, he stated that in all other cities where similar language has been adopted, there has never been an instance of a sexual predator relying on the law to enter a women's restroom.

Following Attorney Feldman's presentation, members of the public who had signed up at the start of the meeting were allowed to speak for 90 seconds, and to respond to questions from committee meetings. With the chamber filled to capacity, an overflow room was provided in City Hall Annex across the street, with a live broadcast.

Attorney Feldman explained that complaints under the new provision would be referred to the Office of Inspector General, with a goal of resolving the issues and deterring litigation. Other types of employment discrimination and housing discrimination are properly heard by the EEOC, and they would be referred if out if they came before the OIG. Beyond these cases, the new ordinance covers more situations that the current federal anti-discrimination law, which requires most businesses offering public accommodations and for sales and service to refrain from discrimination. But the federal law does not apply to bars, and many of the speakers referred to situations where they were turned away from Houston bars because of their race.

Most of the speakers supported the ordinance, but some objected, alleging that there was no emergency or evidence of a need for a new law. Others cited the New Testament, reading portions of Chapter 1 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which outlines mankind's' rebellion against God as a degeneration process manifesting itself in anarchy, crime, and homosexual conduct. Countering this view including a Unitarian-Universalist minister, a Sikh attorney, and former Civil Rights Activist who recalled witnessing the end of the US Senate filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The ordinance will probably be amended somewhat to take account of concerns of Greater Houston Partnership and other business groups who cited the risk of false or frivolous claims and the need for sanctions for abuse of the process. (See GHP website for more information). The administration expects to present the ordinance to the full City Council next week.

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