A city councilman’s attempt to insert homosexuals into San Antonio’s non-discrimination policy has sparked a recall effort amid a heated debate that could have national implications.
San Antonio City Councilman Diego Bernal has proposed adding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) persons to an existing policy that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. A vote, put off for weeks, is now scheduled for Sept. 5.
Bernal did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Advocates say the policy puts San Antonio in line with other major cities in Texas with similar policies, but San Antonio will take it farther: The ordinance changes would prohibit people who have demonstrated bias “in word or deed” toward LGBT individuals from securing business contracts with the city, and anyone in city government could be subject to removal.
On Saturday, about 15 people began going door-to-door to collect the 6,000 signatures needed to recall Bernal, who recently told constituents that if they didn’t like his controversial ordinance, they could simply lie to give the appearance they are in compliance with it.
“You’re going to have word police,” said George Rodriguez, president of the South Texas Political Alliance. “It creates a brand new bureaucracy, a whole new division, the department of human rights, that will adjudicate, review, and investigate accusations.”
Rodriguez said the controversy has galvanized area conservative groups, including the tea party, and churches that weren’t previously active in politics. Three Republican candidates for state attorney general have voiced opposition to the proposal, and in an email to WORLD, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said attempts to reverse discriminate based on religious convictions are unconstitutional and should be emphatically opposed: “It is encouraging to see so many Texans standing up to defend their religious freedoms in light of the misguided proposal put forth by the local city council.”
LGBT activists say the update is necessary because homosexuals have been thrown out of businesses and public places, such as the San Antonio Riverwalk.
Carlton Soules, one of two council members who oppose the new policy, has a different view: “There has not been any evidence presented that there’s this bastion of discrimination in San Antonio,” he told me. “You’ve got first-hand accounts from people who speak at meetings, but no empirical data. If we had a problem, we’d need to address it. This is a solution looking for a problem.”
Soules said he shares concerns about religious liberty, but he’s most worried about businesses that may live or die based on whether a bureaucrat thinks an employer said something offensive about homosexuals: “If you have a prior or existing bias, you could lose your contract [with the city].”
Robert Wilson, an attorney allied with Alliance Defending Freedom, told me there’s “absolutely no protection for religious liberties” under the proposed ordinance, when it comes to individual and private businesses: “You can’t have a business that says, ‘In our business we will uphold biblical values when it comes to homosexuality,’ and do work with the city.”
Wilson also expressed concern that the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on gender identity—a man who feels like a woman couldn’t be barred from using the women’s restroom at any public place. He said public accommodations will even apply to churches and other religious organizations that can’t prove all funds stay within the organization: “You’re going to have the Knights of Columbus having to prove they keep all money to themselves if they don’t want to host same-sex marriage ceremonies.”
The ordinance would be in conflict with state law, so state and federal buildings, area community colleges, and local school districts would all be exempt.
Five council members have already stated their support for the policy—enough to pass it in the nine-member body. Two are still undecided.
Elisa Chan, the other council member opposed to the policy, came under intense criticism earlier this month when she was secretly recorded saying homosexuality is “disgusting” and she doesn’t think people are born gay. Proponents of the new policy pointed to the incident as proof the measure is necessary, but opponents said the incident proves the new policy will limit free speech.
The ordinance has gone through several iterations—“based on which way the wind blows,” Soules said—including the addition of military veterans along with LGBT persons. The veterans language has now been separated from the LGBT proposal, but Soules said Bernal is still using veterans as a cover for his own political purposes. “I’ve accused Diego [Bernal] of it being a Trojan horse—you can’t vote against this ordinance or you’re voting against veterans. Now they’re breaking it apart, [but] the trap there is if you vote for the veterans and against the other, then you’re bigoted.”
Local conservatives believe Bernal’s proposal is a calculated move to boost the political fortunes of his friends: Bernal has a long history with twin brothers Julián Castro, San Antonio’s mayor, and Joaquín Castro, the area’s U.S. Representative in Congress. If the policy succeeds, Julián Castro, who delivered the keynote address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention last year, solidifies his liberal credentials. If it fails, or if its passage becomes a political liability, Castro can wash his hands of it by blaming the council.
“The mayor has let Diego [Bernal] carry this one,” Soules said. “The mayor’s office is very sensitive to this as an explosive issue.”
Soules acknowledged he is “outnumbered and outgunned” in a battle that is “national politics brought down to the local level.” He said the Democratic National Committee’s new finance chair, Henry Muñoz, a gay man from San Antonio, has been pouring money into Texas since he took the post in January. Soules said much of the national Democratic party is floating ideas in San Antonio, which he called the epicenter of the battle for Texas: “We’re ground zero.”
Supporters’ willingness to make changes to the ordinance may indicate they agree with their opponents on at least one thing: This issue could have election repercussions in 2014. Soules said Bexar County, in which San Antonio sits, only slightly favors Democrats, making it possible that an unpopular decision could significantly shift the balance of power in the area. That’s especially noteworthy since the Castro brothers’ perceived national ambitions currently hang on maintaining power in San Antonio.