HOUSTON -- Houston businesses could face fines for discriminating against customers under a new Human Rights Ordinance proposal unveiled by Mayor Annise Parker.
In what the mayor’s office called “landmark legislation,” complaints about businesses accused of discrimination would be reviewed by the city’s inspector general and a seven-member commission in a process that could ultimately land violators in municipal court.
“A young African American should not be turned away from a club on Washington Avenue,” Parker said. “A returning veteran with a service dog should not be denied service at a local restaurant. An older woman should not be denied a job on a city contract. And yet, these things do happen in the friendliest, most welcoming, most diverse city in the United States.”
The mayor unveiled her proposal for a Human Rights Commission in a ballroom full of business leaders during her annual State of the City speech. The crowd greeted her idea with applause, even though some business owners privately expressed concern.
“This is political correctness gone nuts,” said Paul Bettencourt, a state senate candidate and outspoken conservative activist listening to Parker’s speech. “There’s no reason for this.”
The ordinance is still on the drawing board, but the mayor’s office said it would basically prohibit discrimination in all public accommodations, including bars, restaurants and other businesses. Parker said the ordinance would essentially codify protections already guaranteed by major employers throughout the city.
“I hope I can count on the support of all the companies in this room, the individuals in this room, as we move forward,” Parker said to the business lunch crowd organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, “because my Houston does not turn its back on inequality.”
Parker described Houston as “the only major city in the nation without civil rights protections for its residents,” saying at least 185 cities and counties across the nation have enacted some sort of non-discrimination laws.
Bettencourt, a conservative Republican who’s long been critical of Parker, said the mayor’s idea would duplicate protections already insured by state and federal laws.
“Houston is not a third world country,” he said. “We don’t need a Human Rights Commission. We’ve got the most diversified, wonderful workforce, the greatest city in the country, and there’s just no evidence to support that we’ve got a problem.”
The mayor hopes to put her proposal on the city council agenda in early May, indicating the new Human Rights Commission could begin operating later this year.