PLANO, Texas (CN) - The City Council of the Dallas suburb of Plano faces voter backlash and the threat of a lawsuit after it changed its anti-discrimination ordinance to protect homosexual and transgender people.
By 5-3 vote Monday evening, the Plano City Council amended the city's Equal Rights Policy despite the objections of several residents.
Enacted in 1989, the ordinance protects public accommodation, housing, employment and city contracting regardless of a person's race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin or disability. Private businesses qualify as public accommodations under the ordinance.
The amended policy extends the protections to people no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information or military/veteran status.
Plano's vision to be a "city of excellence" will not be "fully achieved" without such an anti-discrimination policy, the council's meeting agenda stated.
The city will not discriminate as an employer based on those classes and expects firms that contract with the city to do the same. Violations will be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a criminal fine.
City Manager Bruce Glasscock said the city has been considering the amendment for at least 10 years and that he asked senior staff and city attorney Paige Mims to review the original ordinance.
"We have watched the progression of what other cities have done in this area," Glasscock said at the council meeting. "It was clear that we were deficient. We were not contemporary in some of our language. It was not what I believe a city of excellence stands for within the community."
In comments immediately before the council's vote, several dozen residents expressed their disapproval of the amendment.
Jeff Matter, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, threatened to sue the city if it was passed. He said the ministries and faith-based companies his group represents were not consulted or given the chance to rebut the city's positions.
Matter said the amendment "goes way beyond federal and state law" and that violates the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling, which allows employers religious exemptions against funding contraception for employees under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act .
"If enacted, this ordinance will be challenged under the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act," Matters told the council. "It violates the Hobby Lobby case that I'm sure you're all familiar with. It violates individual business owners' rights. Justice [Samuel] Alito rejected the notion that by engaging in business you lose those religious liberty rights. Similar laws in other parts of the countries have put bakeries out of businesses, shut down photographers, florists and wedding chapels. If passed, we will see people of faith in our own backyard subjected to criminalization ... suffice it to say, if you pass it, we will sue you. We've done so five other times, we've won each one and we'll win again."
Matter's comments brought loud applause and cheers by the standing-room-only audience.
Although businesses are now banned from discriminating against members of the newly included groups, the council approved an exception that allows the denial "of opposite sex access to facilities inside a public accommodation segregated on the basis of sex for privacy." This includes restrooms, showers and locker rooms.
Mims noted this unisex "bathroom" exemption is not something typically included by other cities in anti-discrimination ordinances.
"The only other city with that exemption is Fort Worth," Mims said.
Mims said that although violations are a misdemeanor, the city's goal is to refer violators to state agencies "that already deal with these issues."
"We already do this for people with disabilities and will continue to do it on an expanded basis for the other protected categories," she said. "There are instances, especially in public accommodation, where federal law does not cover certain issues. The city will work with business owners to mediate. Our goal is to reconcile the issues between the parties. The other cities tell us that businesses are very open to this because they want to have good customer service. They are sometimes not aware that people do not feel as if they are being accommodated."
Mims rebutted arguments that sexual orientation and gender identity should not be included because they are not protected classes under state and federal law.
"That is false," Mims said. "For over 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized gender stereotyping - which includes several forms of sexual orientation and gender identity - discrimination in federal housing and employment laws. It is not called out as a specific category but it falls under gender."
Mims cited several employment law rulings by the 5th Circuit that protect transgender people in the workplace. She told the council that language of the amendment and of ordinances in other cities are similar because they are often taken from federal law.
The Liberty Institute did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. It is a Plano-based conservative Christian advocacy group. It is working on at least 90 similar religious freedom lawsuits in several other states, Matter told the council.
Plano, pop. 270,000, north of Dallas, is the ninth-largest city in Texas.
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