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Texans Furious at Plano’s Gay-Friendly Law

PLANO, Texas (CN) - Opponents of a Dallas suburb's inclusion of gay and transgender people in its anti-discrimination policy will try to gather 3,800 signatures to repeal the measure, a group of citizens and pastors said.

Members of the conservative Liberty Institute, Houston Pastors' Council and Plano Citizens United announced the initiative at a news conference Wednesday.

The effort to repeal the city's Equal Rights Policy comes one month after the City Council approved an amendment to the 25-year-old ordinance that expands protections to people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information or military/veteran status.

It prevents discrimination in public accommodation, housing, employment and city contracting, with private businesses qualifying as public accommodations. Violations are to be treated as Class C misdemeanors punishable by fine.

Pastor Mike Buster with Prestonwood Baptist Church criticized the amendment Wednesday, telling dozens of supporters that the city is "trying to silence people of faith in the workplace."

Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the ordinance " an attack on Judeo-Christian beliefs."

"It is time people of faith become involved in the political arena," Cruz said.

Pastors' Council leader David Welch said the ordinance is not needed because "there was no discrimination in Plano."

Mayor Harry LaRosiliere rebutted the claims at a separate news conference at City Hall, defending the legality and constitutionality of the measure.

The mayor called the opposition "voices of the vocal minority" who "will not speak for the majority."

LaRosiliere said more than 200 cities and counties in the country that have enacted similar ordinances, some of them more than a decade ago.

The mayor called the Plano law "a reflection of who we are as a city of excellence, a city that values and respects all our citizens."

"It is disappointing that so much misinformation has been propagated in our community. Our citizens simply need to get the facts," the mayor said.

The said that petitions being circulated are part of the "misinformation in the community."

LaRosiliere declined Welch's request to debate him about the ordinance, stating several times the debate "is over."

City spokesman Steve Stoler said the ordinance allows for religious organizations to apply for exemptions, and that it is based on federal law.

"We are confident once voters know the facts by reading the ordinance, they will see it is fair and ensures religious freedom, while providing equality for all groups, not just a few," Stoler said in a statement Wednesday. "[It] does not criminalize religious beliefs; it ensures religious freedom."

Plano Citizens United claims the amendment criminalizes beliefs by Christians, Jews and Muslims about sex and gender. The group claims it punishes small businesses, regardless of whether their owners are religious or not.

"City bureaucrats will determine whether citizens' statements and actions are 'unjust,' the group said on its website. "This policy subjects citizens to criminal sanctions for our beliefs on topics affecting much of human interaction and is a direct threat to our freedoms of both speech and religion! All Americans have a right to speak and act according to their beliefs. The Constitution and state law guarantees those rights."

If the 3,800 signatures are delivered by the Jan. 20 deadline and validated, the council will vote to either repeal the amendment or place it on the ballot, LaRosiliere said.

The 30-day window to start collecting signatures began on Dec. 18. Opposition members have identified church services on Jan. 11 and 18 as critical for gathering the necessary signatures.

Immediately before the City Council approved the amendment on Dec. 8, several dozen residents expressed disapproval of the measure.

Jeff Matter, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, threatened to sue the city if it adopted the measure. 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 claimed the amendment "goes way beyond federal and state law" and 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 City Council at the time. "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."

City Attorney Paige Mims dismissed the argument that sexual orientation and gender identity should not be included in the amendment 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."

She 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.

Plano, pop. 272,000, is Texas' ninth-largest city. Its median household income of $81,475 is 61 percent higher than the statewide median of $50,740, and its median home or condo value of $212,600 is 65 percent higher than the statewide median of $129,200, according to city-data.com.

Plano is 56 percent Anglo.

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