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Mayor Parker releases draft of Equal Rights Ordinance

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At a press conference in the Proclamation Room at City Hall on Monday afternoon April 21, Mayor Annise Parker, accompanied by City Council Member Ellen Cohen and City Attorney Dave Feldman, announced that she had sent a draft Equal Rights ordinance to City Council members. The proposed ordinance will prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations, and private employment at businesses with 50 or more employees. For purposes of the ordinance, religious organizations are exempt.

If passed in its current form, complaints of violations will be handled the Office of the City Inspector and the City Attorney. If the person who is the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the City Attorney may ask City Council to issue a subpoena to compel cooperation. Violations will be a Class C misdemeanor, which may be punished by a fine of $500 per day or incident, for a maximum of $5000.

The current draft differs somewhat from the plan the Mayor outlined in her State of the City address on April 3. At that time, she envisaged appointment of a Houston Human Rights Commission to hear complaints. However, she stated that in discussion with business leaders, there would be more support if initial complaints could be handled in a more discrete manner, with a few toward resolving problems.

In response to questions from journalists, City Attorney Feldman explained that the ordinance tracks federal laws including the ACA in applying only to businesses with more than 50 employees. The exemption of religious organizations is an effort to avert first amendment issues. In addition, the ordinance would not apply to private clubs. On the other hand, if a bar or nightclub attempted to call itself “private” as a pretext for violating the ordinance, the exemption would not be applied.

A copy of the ordinance is available on-line on the City of Houston website at http://www.houstontx.gov/feedback-equalrights.html. Mayor Parker will present the ordinance in detail to the City Council Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Council Member Ellen Cohen on April 30. Consideration by the full City Council is expected for May 7.

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