by Megan Smith
On April 21, Houston Mayor Annise Parker released the first draft of the city’s proposed equal rights ordinance.
The draft will prohibit discrimination in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations, and private employment at businesses with at least 50 employees.
It stipulates that all complaints about violations of the ordinance and decisions regarding prosecution will be handled confidentially by the City’s Office of Inspector General and the city attorney, the mayor’s office reported. If the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the city attorney may ask the city council to approve the issuance of a subpoena to compel cooperation. Violations would be punishable by fines from $250 to $500, with the cap set at $5,000 for ongoing offenses.
The ordinance also gives the mayor discretion to create an advisory task force to study and report on matters related to the ordinance.
To avoid First Amendment issues, the draft provides exemptions to religious organizations in the provisions that deal with private employment, fair housing, and places of public accommodation.
Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city, but the only major metropolitan area in the country that does not prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation. The city has no protections against discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, either.
“As I stated in my State of the City Address earlier this month, the Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally, and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life,” Mayor Parker said upon the release of the draft. “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have, or who you choose to love. It’s time the laws on our books reflect this.”
The Houston GLBT Political Caucus praised Mayor Parker’s inclusion of private-sector jobs, as she previously considered leaving them out for fear that the ordinance would not have enough votes to pass if they were included. However, LGBT advocates continue to push for the ordinance to apply to private businesses of 15 employees or more, as 50 employees is a number more than three times as high as the cutoff in most other cities’ nondiscrimination laws.
The draft was also praised by the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston. “The ordinance is a significant step to promote the economic development of Houston,” Antoine B. Taylor, the group’s president, said. “The great city of Houston is currently experiencing an economic highpoint, and it would be well served by protecting its workforce from incidents of discrimination. This proposal is good policy which will move Houston forward into the 21st century.”
The proposed ordinance has been forwarded to City Council. Mayor Parker intends to present this draft to city council’s Quality of Life Committee on April 30, and it will be considered by the full City Council on May 7.
To read the full text of the proposed ordinance and provide feedback, visit houstontx.gov/feedback-equalrights.html.