This could be a big problem.
Four Republican lawmakers from the Plano area plan to introduce legislation that would bar cities and counties from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, the Observer has learned. The proposed legislation also threatens to nullify existing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities that are home to roughly 7.5 million Texans—or more than one-quarter of the state’s population.
The bill comes in response to the Plano City Council’s passage last month of an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“There is legislation that’s being worked on,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told a group of pastors who gathered in mid-December at Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in response to passage of the city’s equal rights ordinance, according to an audio recording obtained by the Observer.
Texas Pastor Council Executive Director David Welch, whose group is leading efforts to repeal equal rights ordinances in Plano and Houston, told the Observer the legislation would prohibit political subdivisions of the state from adding classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that aren’t protected under Texas or federal law—neither of which covers LGBT people.
“It should be a uniform standard statewide, and cities can’t just arbitrarily create new classes that criminalize a whole segment of the majority of the population,” Welch said. “It’s just self-evident that they’re going to try to do it city by city. We’re dealing with a broad public policy that creates criminal punishments. That’s a pretty serious issue, and when it’s based on a special agenda by a small, tiny fragment of the population … that’s a legitimate need and reason for the state Legislature to act.”
As I say, this as yet unfiled bill is a bigger threat than the petitions and the proposed constitutional amendments, since this would only need majority support to pass and would surely be signed into law by Greg “Local control means me in control” Abbott. I suppose we could hope that the business community, which is generally very favorable to municipal NDOs, might apply some pressure in Austin to stop this in its tracks. Given how effective they’ve been at dissuading their Republican buddies from doing other things they don’t like – you know, killing immigration reform, slashing funds for education and infrastructure, that sort of thing – it’s not a strategy I’d want to be dependent on.
Currently, the only state with a law prohibiting cities from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances is Tennessee. The Tennessee law, passed in 2011, prompted a lawsuit from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but a state appeals court recently dismissed the case, saying plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t show harm.
Shannon Minter, a Texas native who serves as legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he now plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee ban.
Lawmakers in several other states have introduced proposals to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances, but none has passed. Minter said in the last few years anti-LGBT lawmakers have shifted to a religious freedom approach to counter local nondiscrimination ordinances because the strategy is more appealing politically.
“Because the Tennessee-style bill is so punitive toward all localities, I think that it’s so blatantly taking democratic power away from local governments that legislators just don’t have the stomach to do it,” Minter said.
The lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s law was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law banning local protections based on sexual orientation. Authors of the Tennessee bill attempted to to get around Romer v. Evans by enacting a general prohibition on classes that aren’t covered under state law, rather than specifically targeting LGBT protections. However, Minter believes the law is still unconstitutional.
“Legislatures are not permitted to enact laws that are designed to disadvantage a particular group, and it’s as clear as it could possibly be that the purpose of these laws is to prevent gay and transgender people from gaining local anti-discrimination protections,” he said.
Tennessee lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in one city, Nashville, and Minter said the Texas proposals broader impact would also make it more vulnerable to legal challenges.
Yes, there’s the courts. One can’t know how that might play out, and even if one felt confident that any such law would be unconstitutional on its face, these things take time and cost money and leave a lot of people in harm’s way in the interim. These are the consequences of not winning enough elections. Keep your state rep on speed dial, you’re going to need to let him or her know how you feel about this. Texas Leftist and Unfair Park have more.