Civil rights proposal packs council chamber; opponents raise prospect of referendum

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on April 30, 2014 at 7:00 PM

HOUSTON -- A standing-room-only crowd packed into Houston City Council chambers for a hearing on Houston’s controversial proposal for a civil rights ordinance.

Opponents marched into City Hall in a group as a show of strength before television cameras. Meanwhile, both supporters and critics brought out everyone from clergymen to businesspeople for a public discussion of Mayor Annise Parker’s increasingly contentious plan.

“People are getting fired,” said Lou Weaver with a group called Human Rights Campaign Houston. “People are not being able to rent an apartment. Those things are important.”

Conservative critics of the plan repeatedly raised questions about whether it would essentially allow transgendered Houstonians to choose for themselves whether they walk into a men’s restroom or a ladies’ restroom.

“The imagery that I have in my mind is a grown man going into a restroom with a 6 year old girl standing beside of her using the restroom,” said Kendall Baker, a leader of the Houston Pastor’s Council.

The civil rights ordinance – a scaled-back version of Parker’s original plan for a Human Rights Commission – is a sweeping anti-discrimination plan with provisions affecting everything from housing to private businesses to public accommodations. It would ban discrimination over a wide range of circumstances – race, sex, religion, disabilities, etc. – but the provisions regarding sexual orientation are generating the most controversy.

Meanwhile, critics said if city council passes the ordinance, they may lead a movement for a voter referendum in November.

“If the council adopts it anyway, then we’re going to look at every other option,” said Dave Welch, one of the leaders of the opposition. “We’re going to look at a referendum. Obviously, the ballot box.”

That would set up a curious political scenario on the same day that Texans elect a new governor, putting a hot-button issue for social conservatives on the ballot in the state’s largest city.

“Should it be on the ballot in November 2014, I think there’ll be a lot of Democrats here concerned,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst. “This would have a mobilizing effect.”

Still, it wouldn’t necessarily play in Republicans’ favor. Stein points out that a survey released just last week indicated growing support for gay rights issues in Houston, suggesting that a referendum on Parker’s civil rights ordinance could actually boost Democratic turnout in Harris County.

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