Today, voters in Houston will decide the fate of a city ordinance that would protect the rights of lots of city residents, but that measure won’t pass if the Religious Right gets its way.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) would make it illegal to discriminate against anyone in the city on several grounds, including gender and gender orientation, race, sexual orientation, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, military status, pregnancy/genetic information and marital status.
It would also give transgender individuals the right to use the restroom of their choice in public buildings and businesses (more on that in a moment).
While this measure would represent a tremendous victory for civil rights if passed, it has something of a rocky history. Houston Mayor Annise Parker has made HERO one of her top priorities, but her first attempt to make it law didn’t work out as planned. Last year, the city council approved the legislation, but a group of local pastors outmaneuvered Parker and eventually forced HERO to be put on the ballot this year – with help from the Texas Supreme Court.
Now that HERO is subject to a popular vote, fundamentalist zealots are pulling out all the stops to oppose the measure – and they’ve narrowed their focus on the bathroom use issue. The Washington Post reported that those who oppose HERO have named it “the bathroom ordinance” and are trying to scare voters into thinking that women will be attacked in restrooms by men posing as women should the legislation pass.
“Houston voters do not want men in their women’s bathrooms,” said the Rev. Dave Welch, head of the Houston Area Pastors’ Council, which is the leading opponent of HERO. “It’s an invasion of privacy, an invasion of a safe space for women and girls.”
The Rev. Dr. Ed Young, head of Houston’s Second Baptist, which is the largest Baptist Church in the United States, has called the measure “Godless.” Oh, and he’s also really worried about who uses women’s bathrooms.
“Those of us who believe men should use men’s facilities and women should use women’s facilities, we will be discriminated against,” Young said in a sermon. “It is totally deceptive and deadly and I trust you will vote no, no, no.”
Even some high-profile members of the Houston sports scene got involved. Former Astro Lance Berkman appeared in a radio ad in which he baselessly spread fear about the bathroom use matter.
“Vote no on Proposition One,” Berkman said in the commercial. “No men in women’s bathrooms. No boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms. I’m Lance Berkman. I played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition One, the ‘bathroom ordinance,’ would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms.”
The owner of the Houston Texans pro football team, Bob McNair, donated $10,000 to the campaign against HERO – but when word got out, he withdrew his financial support.
These Religious Right scare tactics have no basis in reality. Transgender men and women are not “troubled.” They are merely seeking the right to use a restroom that fits their gender identity.
The risk of assault has been overhyped. After all, a criminal who is intent on attacking women in a restroom isn’t likely to be deterred by a sign reading, “Women Only.”
The concern of these pastors also seems less than genuine. Religious Right groups, with their ardent opposition to both abortion and birth control, are hardly champions of women’s rights. Now we’re supposed to believe they really care about who uses a women’s restroom?
Whether or not opponents of HERO are disingenuous may not matter today. The Post said polls show steep divisions among voters and the future of HERO is unclear.
If Houston fails to pass the anti-discrimination ordinance, however, there could be consequences. As you may remember, Indiana faced threats of economic boycott when it attempted to pass a “religious freedom” law earlier this year that would have allowed for discrimination against LGBT persons. As a result, the move failed.
And when Arizona tried a similar tactic in 2014, the NFL threated to relocate the 2015 Super Bowl, which was scheduled to be held in Phoenix. As a result, then-Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill. Coincidentally, Houston is slated to host the Super Bowl in 2017.
Much is at stake here. Houston voters should ignore Religious Right scare talk.