In Houston next week, voters will go to the polls and decide the fate of a civil rights regulation governing everything from employment to access to public facilities.
At issue is a measure passed by the city council last year, which then became the subject of a lawsuit because of provisions expanding what most Americans likely understand to be basic civil rights protections to gay and transgender individuals. This conflict has drawn national attention, at least in part because Houston happens also to be the largest American city with an openly gay mayor. Mayor Annise D. Parker supports the measure.
As Texas Monthly magazine put it way back in May 2014, the measure has taken a rather "circuitous" route to get to this point. In fact, it's only grown more loopy since that time. What will happen when Houston votes Tuesday is, at this point, basically a battle between those who feel that the extended protections will infringe on their religious beliefs and ability to live and those who say that, without them, gay and transgender people in the city face unreasonable risk, conflict and even trauma in their day-to-day lives. They say their basic constitutional rights are not secure.
Those are the two sides' essential arguments. And, as most readers can likely imagine, the fight has spread to even more territory.
The forces in support of repealing the measure might have begun their cause with arguments about religious liberty, but they have since expanded their public campaign against the law to include what they describe as public safety concerns. Because the measure would require employers with more than 15 staffers and most public facilities to allow people to use the restroom facilities that conform with their gender identity, the opponents of the law have taken to referring to it as "the bathroom bill." They have also lodged concerns publicly that the measure could provide a means or cover for sexual predators to disguise their identities and enter Houston public bathrooms frequented by the group the predator wishes to target.
All that proponents of the measure appear to have in their quiver are facts and logic. They point out that the law actually aims to protect Houstonians against all sorts of discrimination — on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.
It does allow some subset of the city's residents — those who are transgender — to use public restrooms that conform to their gender identity. But it also aims to prevent discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas critical to a safe and sound life. That is perhaps what prompted Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg to call the bathroom part of the bill the "bogeyman's best weapon" — a tactic designed to alarm the public and move public deliberations about the bill out of the realm of civil rights.
When the Houston City Council passed the measure in 2014, the Houston Area Pastor Council launched a petition drive to collect the 17,269 signatures required by Houston's charter to put a measure to voters. The group thought the measure should and would be overturned.
They got to work and, by July, submitted 31,000 signatures to city officials. It seemed the referendum was just about set. Then, a closer look at the signatures forcing the measure on the ballot found insufficient forms and other problems on so many of the petition's pages that there were 15,249 valid signatures left. That's just more than 2,000 votes shy of the city requirement to force a measure to a city-wide vote.
The pastors sued. The case went to trial in January. Among other moments of note, the city subpoenaed sermons about the so-called bathroom bill made by some pastors involved in the suit and some that were not, as well as some e-mails with parishioners. Then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (a Republican who is now governor) intervened, telling the city's legal staff it had gone too far and should withdraw the subpoenas for the church materials.
Ultimately, the pastors lost the fight to move ahead with an election in a district court. They went to the Texas Supreme Court where they won, forcing the equal rights measure to a vote Nov. 3.
That brings us up to date. Well, almost.
This month, former professional baseball star and Houston Astro Lance Berkman began appearing in TV commercials opposing the so-called bathroom bill, telling Houstonians they should vote to repeal the measure. Here's what Lifesite News, which bills itself as a "portal of news stories about pro-life issues in Canada, the United States and the U.K.," had to say about the commercials:
The 1997 first round draft pick referred to transgenders as "troubled men who claim to be women" and said it would be dangerous to let them "enter women's bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms."
"It's better to prevent this danger by closing women's restrooms to men, rather than waiting for a crime to happen," Berkman said.
The baseball great then appealed to voters to "join me to stop the violation of privacy and discrimination against women.
That's right. The opponents of the measure have added the idea that allowing people to use what they feel are gender-appropriate bathrooms is a form of discrimination against women to their list. No, not the more logical but still legally problematic "some people are not comfortable with this change as it will involve who uses which bathroom." They say this is discrimination against women. Discrimination.
So, here we are.