Texas Bill Chips Away at Nondiscrimination Ordinances

AUSTIN (CN) – In the wake of a “bathroom bill” passed by the Texas Senate last month that is being called anti-transgender and discriminatory, the State House has proposed legislation to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances.

Senate Bill 6, which sailed through the upper chamber with the support of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, would require people in Texas to use restrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities that correspond with the “biological sex” on their birth certificates.

House Bill 2899, by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, does not mention sex or gender, but attempts to compliment S.B. 6 by prohibiting municipalities and school districts from enforcing nondiscrimination ordinances that protect a class of people from discrimination if the ordinances regulate access to multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities.

The legislation is similar to a measure recently adopted in North Carolina, which prohibits local governments from passing ordinances extending nondiscrimination to sexual orientation and gender identity until December 2020.

H.B. 2899 would nullify nondiscrimination ordinances that have existed for decades in several Texas cities , which transgender people often rely on when determining whether or not it is safe to use a public facility.

Representatives listened to public testimony on H.B. 2899 in a House State Affairs Committee hearing that began late Wednesday evening and lasted until 4:30 a.m. Thursday.

“This issue needs to be the same in Austin as it is in Abilene; the same in Houston as it is in Hutto,” Rep. Simmons said at the hearing. “It does not prohibit a statewide nondiscrimination policy. What we’re saying is that this needs to be handled at the state level.”

Out of 72 people who testified Wednesday night and Thursday morning, 66 opposed the measure.

Opponents of the bill, including some committee members, said the legislation was simply unnecessary — a “solution in search of a problem.” Moreover, they said, the bill could have a disastrous effect on the state’s economy and endanger people in need of protection.

“Legislation of this nature is viewed as discriminatory,” said Ashley Harris, director of industry and government relations for Visit San Antonio. “It is not in line with the welcoming environment that guests to our city have come to expect.”

Harris said her city was already experiencing economic losses because of legislation like H.B. 2899. Organizers of two events set to occur in San Antonio have already canceled, while others plan to pull out if the legislation passes.

She cited a recent study by the Waco-based Perryman Group, which found that Texas stands to lose $3.3 billion in annual tourism revenue and more than 35,600 full-time jobs if anti-LGBT bills like H.B. 2899 become law.

Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Association of Business, said that companies considering moving to the state have put their plans on hold pending the outcome of this legislation, and that companies already operating in the state are concerned about the impact such legislation might have on their ability to recruit employees.

“We believe that discriminatory legislation of this type is risky business that Texas simply cannot afford,” Wallace said. “Why do we want to proceed with legislation that is perceived to fix a problem that simply does not exist, to risk the Texas miracle which we all worked so hard to create?”

After hearing several city officials speak about the effect H.B. 2899 might have on businesses, committee chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said he was frustrated that no representatives from such businesses testified.

“Them weighing in would probably have a profound effect on what we’re doing,” Cook said. “For them not to be here implies that they’re okay with something when that may not be the case.”

David Welch, who spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the Texas Pastor Council, said legislators should be more concerned with protecting women and children than the economy.

“Are we saying that people in other states and event planners are going to tell those of us living here every day that we’re going to have to jeopardize and threaten the emotional and physical safety and privacy of our women and children … so they can have an event here?” Welch said. “Well, we’re not willing to make that trade off.”

Cook, members of the committee, and several others pointed out that there have been no reported issues with men using the protections provided by nondiscrimination ordinances to enter public facilities for nefarious purposes.

As the hearing progressed, the testimony became more personal.

Elizabeth Schwartz, the granddaughter of former State Sen. A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, said the bill legitimizes discrimination that she and many other Texans already experience.

Although Schwartz is not transgender, she said she commonly faces discrimination because of the way she looks.

“This first time I was misgendered, I was 10 years old. I was kicked out of a bathroom because I looked like a boy,” she said.

If the bill passed, instead of “just being stared at” in the bathroom, she feared she could be questioned and searched by police officers.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” Schwartz said.

Emmett Schelling, a transgender man, agreed with Schwartz that legislation like H.B. 2899 would allow those with a bias to be “openly worse than they already are.”

He added that eliminating local nondiscrimination ordinances might exacerbate the already high rate of suicide among transgender people, and make them more vulnerable to assault.

“When you take away these protections, you’re more-or-less advocating for the people that do have an issue to go ahead and be even more violent or verbal,” Schelling said. “This might be an economic stance for cities, but this is a life-and-death stance for us.”

The bill was left pending in committee.