A much-debated non-discrimination ordinance that drew national attention to San Antonio and record numbers of citizens to City Hall for and against the measure passed Thursday afternoon by an 8-3 vote. The vote was announced to an almost deafening round of applause from supporters wearing red in the San Antonio City Council chambers.
While the Council vote was not close and the outcome was never really in doubt in recent weeks, the size and intensity of citizen groups that turned out to support and oppose the initiative reflects the deep divisions in San Antonio over LGBT people and their right to be regarded as a protected class.
Anticipating defeat, groups that opposed the NDO were ready to gather signatures outside Council chambers to try to force a recall election of the mayor and the council members who voted for the NDO.
District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan, District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules, and District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor voted against the NDO after months of passionate rallies and protests from both opponents and supporters.
Mayor Julián Castro and Council members Diego Bernal (District 1), Shirley Gonzales (District 5), Ron Nirenberg (District 8), Rey Saldaña (District 4), Ray Lopez (District 6), and Cris Medina (District 7), voted to approve the NDO, which updates, consolidates, and expands the city’s non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation, gender identification, and veteran status.
District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran, who had not officially announced her decision either way until today, also joined the majority.
"As I see it, this ordinance does not take away any rights," Viagran said. "But instead adds protections to those marginalized (in the LGBT community) ... this journey doesn't end with this vote."
Viagran also described her personal growth over the past months conferring with family members, City Attorney Michael Bernard, her pastor, and her own conscience. Empathetic to both sides, she ultimately said "when we wake up tomorrow, there will still be people whose lifestyle we don't agree with ... we can all respect that and live amongst each other ... this ordinance doesn't change that."
While each council member gave similar explanations for their support, they also came to the conclusion that the NDO does not and will not impede anyone's religious freedoms, freedom of speech, or freedom to conduct business. The ordinance covers city employment, some city contracts, housing, and public accommodations.
The council’s discussion and voting process took about two hours, but it seemed most minds were made up well before today’s session got underway. Most speeches given were reiterations and clarifications of comments made during last week's session, the first dedicated to NDO discussion.
Both the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber CEOs spoke at this morning's hearing to officially announce their respective organizations' support – short and sweet statements, less than the allotted minute. Mayor Castro cited this and the support of several religious organizations as strong evidence that the business community would not be impaired in any way by the NDO.
"I find it hard to believe that our chambers, religious communities would be supportive of the kind of ordinance that you're describing," he said, looking to his left at the sea of blue shirts in response to accusations that the ordinance disallows those with religious beliefs against homosexuality to serve public office or business owners to conduct business as usual.
"I believe this ordinance will help ensure that everybody in our city is treated equally," Castro said. "We have not misused (non-discrimination code) in the past ... and that's not going to happen.
Councilwoman Chan, who has been at the forefront of the opposition since a recording of her calling homosexuality "disgusting" (among other remarks) surfaced last month, called to table the vote until more thorough research could be done.
"(This NDO) is still confusing and can be interpreted in many ways that provides loopholes ... to take advantage of our citizens," Chan said. "If the goal is to avoid all discrimination ... we need more than just a single meeting to discuss this ordinance."
Chan also echoed Councilwoman Taylor and Councilman Soules' sentiments that the ordinance may cause some individuals to have to choose between the law and their faith.
Councilman Bernal said that the exemptions and amended language of the ordinance do not allow for loopholes or abuse, citing its stated intent within the draft:
Nothing in this Ordinance shall be construed as supporting or advocating any particular lifestyle or religious view. To the contrary, it is the intention of this Ordinance that all persons be treated fairly and equally and it is the express intent of this Ordinance to guarantee to all of our citizens fair and equal treatment under the law. Nothing herein shall be construed as requiring any person or organization to support or advocate any particular lifestyle or religious view, or advance any particular message or idea.
"I believe that this ordinance is balanced," Bernal said. "No one's rights are more important than the other."
Bernal was visibly frustrated by opposing council members and citizens who said there had been a lack of discussion and research on the issue.
"A draft of (the NDO) has been out for months, I brought it to as many people as wanted to see it," Bernal said of his awareness campaign. "We all had the opportunity to sit and talk with our constituents ... I think we opted to not talk to each other ... that's not a lack of process, that's a lack of professionalism."
While the draft had gone through five revisions, he said, those were necessary changes in response to community feedback.
The most recent change was made during the meeting to address the contentious "bathroom clause," which was first added in exemptions to appease the fear that there would be no recourse for sexual crimes committed in bathrooms as assailants could claim discrimination. Once this was added, the question, "Who decides who is what sex?" was asked by Councilman Soules and the transgender community was outraged by the clause.
"Nothing herein shall be construed as directing any policy or practice regarding the use of restrooms, shower rooms, or similar facilities which have been designated for use by persons of the opposite sex."
Has been changed to something similar to this by Councilman Saldaña during Thursday's session:
"Nothing herein shall be construed as allowing access to any sex segregated place for any unlawful purpose."
Bernal and Castro cited these changes as an example of the ordinance's strength rather than its alleged weakness.
"I reject any notion that this ordinance was not (provided) to us or that we did not discuss it," Castro said. "The work (that City Council has done here) goes well beyond what we do 99% of the time."
[Story continues below quotes.]
Nay Votes, Quotes:
District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor
- "I'm opposed to discrimination in all forms ... I do not hate anyone, I'm not judging anyone."
- "I believe that a thorough comparison of other laws should have been provided (by the City Attorney)."
- "This doesn't mean that people of faith choose to discriminate .. it means that they cannot diminish their faith because it's politically correct to do so."
- "I'd like to engage in other issues ... I feel a lot more comfortable and productive when talking about how to balance the budget."
- "Some assertions by Christian objectors have made me cringe." She does not agree with opposition speakers that tie homosexuality to increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases or unsafe bathrooms.
- "I would not be able to sleep at night if I voted yes. It's not just about me, it's my job to represent my constituents."
District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan
- "Today I am disappointed ... politics has become the enemy of policy ... the power of political correctness prevailed over freedom of speech."
- "The lack of transparency should be frightening (to) all."
- "We have had very little sleep ... I didn't really write down the actual language," she said, feeling that the ordinance and the vote has been rushed.
- "If the goal is to avoid all discrimination ... we need more than just a single meeting to discuss this ordinance." Chan asked to table the ordinance until a later date (motion failed).
- "The ordinance stifles free speech and religious discretion ... today these freedoms are at risk – all in the name of solving a problem that city staff can provide no evidence of."
- "Just because I disagree with lifestyle choices of (the) LGBT community ... doesn't mean that (I'm) for discrimination."
District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules
- "I know this is not going to change the outcome ... but I want clarification (for myself) and folks in the audience."
- Took issue with due process of possible discrimination complaints: "The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) only investigates workplace discrimination that violates federal laws, right?" Confirmed by City Attorney Michael Bernard, who went on to say that a violation of a city ordinance also violates federal law (Title IV), so it would be under their jurisdiction anyway.
- "Let's not dance around the issue, if we're going to vote to allow (transgender people) use of their (preferred) bathroom, then let's do it ... It's still unclear as-is."
- Took issue again with the removal of the "Prior Discriminatory Acts" clause for appointed officials, boards, and commissions. "In an effort to fix one set of circumstances, we've created another set ... under the existing language we can't do anything about (finding out about a person's discriminatory past) now."
- "To my colleagues who committed their votes early in the process ... I'm somewhat disappointed ... why didn't you insist on something better? We have a responsibility of due diligence."
Yay Votes, Quotes:
District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña
- "(This) is not a discussion that people like to have. There is never a sense of agreement or conclusion."
- "It's an uncomfortable conversation ... but you (both sides) have been willing to put yourself out there and speak your mind ... I respect that and thank you."
- "I woke up trying to think of something to convince you (those in opposition) to change your mind ... but as a policy maker it's not our responsibility to convince you something is wrong."
- "At the end of the day, we vote on a very simple document ... equality for all, special treatment for none."
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales
- Glad to see so much participation, but, like Taylor, wishes that there was more interest in other matters before council this month (i.e. the budget).
- "I want to protect my family and it extended to my community," she said of her family's personal growth.
- "The (ordinance started out as) a simple update ... has since caused confusion ... I'm troubled to see how it has all transpired ... even these last-minute adjustments," she said, referring to the revised draft.
- Ultimately, she wants to get back to the budget and urged fellow members not to table the NDO.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg
- "Interpretation (of this ordinance) will be – must be – conducted under the full eyes of the law."
- "The debate about equality has been going on for hundreds of years ... we're not surprised by the resistance."
- The revisions made are necessary and only serve to clarify the ordinance, "the discourse here is about the intent of this ordinance, not the language."
- "Jesus was welcoming to everyone at his table."
- For city officials, board members, etc: "Religious beliefs should not be an excuse."
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez
- "The reality is that there are more than two sides."
- "It's easy to get behind the spirit of (this ordinance) – but then how do we codify it? How do we do it?"
- "Something kept coming back to me: Who am I to judge? I keep on coming to that ... it gives me a solid personal decision, I will be able to sleep at night."
- "It's abundantly clear to me that extending these rights to the LGBT (community) is the right thing to do."
- The addition of veterans to the protected class list is long overdue, said Lopez, a Vietnam War vet. Separating the issue, however, from the LGBT issue so that there is no room for confusion or an accusation of "using one for the other."
District 7 Councilman Cris Medina
- "What has probably been overshadowed a little bit here is the impact to veterans," he said, thanking Lopez for his comments.
- "I'm opposed to discrimination in all forms ... in a perfect world, society would be blind to differences."
- "As a person of faith and a husband and a father ... people should not have to choose between faith and abiding the laws." But ultimately he doesn't feel that the ordinance forces this choice.
- "If there is a judgment to be made about how someone lives their life, He will make that call ... not me."
- "We cannot afford to be divided."
(Mayor Castro, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran and Councilman Bernal are quoted in the main article.)
A record-breaking 700-plus citizens signed up to speak for yesterday’s Citizens to be Heard session. Their voices were heard Wednesday night and into Thursday until 1 a.m. The process resumed Friday at 9 a.m. when many of the 120 signed up to speak donated their time to other speakers. The public commentary finally concluded at noon. Some speakers on both sides of the contentious debate stayed the night in Main Plaza to secure a spot and maintain a balance between blue and red T-shirts in Council chambers today.
Among those that stayed the night through was Daniel Graney, co-founder of Community Alliance for a United San Antonio (CAUSA), who was confident during the session break that the ordinance would pass and emerged in tears of joy hugging friends outside the Municipal Building after the vote. What's next?
"Right now, some rest," Graney said while he made light plans to join a 7 p.m. #NDO4SA celebration at Sparky's Pub.
In a separate vote, Councilwoman Chan and Councilman Soules also voted against the non-discrimination ordinance in relation to adding veteran status to the list of protected classes. Adding veterans to the non-discrimination was expected to be approved by all, but Soules and Chan stuck to their stance that they oppose to the structure, research, and wording of the ordinance itself – not its "spirit." A motion to separate the classes in two votes was officially approved during this afternoon’s session.