One Year Later, Horror Stories About This City's LGBT Non-Discrimination Law Haven't Come True

Prohibiting Anti-LGBT Discrimination Hasn't Threatened Religious Liberty

One year after San Antonio expanded its non-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBT people, opponents' predictions that the measure would curtail religious liberty and free speech haven't come true.

On September 5, 2013, San Antonio's city council voted to extend non-discrimination protections to LGBT residents in housing, employment, public accommodations, city contracts, and board appointments. The ordinance was approved despite a right-wing misinformation campaign propagated by local anti-LGBT activists and national conservative media, including Fox NewsGlenn Beck, and The Washington Times.

Opponents of the ordinance asserted that the ordinance could ban Christians from holding public office or winning city contracts, imperil the free speech rights of conservative opponents of LGBT equality, or even impose "criminal penalties" on anti-LGBT business owners. Those claims persisted even though the ordinance explicitly protected against religious discrimination and despite the striking of language that had raised free speech concerns. 

At the time, Councilman Diego Bernal, the sponsor of the expanded ordinance expressed dismay at the “ludicrous” misinformation spread about the ordinance, telling Equality Matters, “I've been taken aback by the amount of purposeful misinformation  and I find that to be very harmful."

But a year after the expansion of San Antonio's non-discrimination ordinance, even an opponent of the measure admits that horror stories about threats to religious liberty haven't come true.

Religious Liberty And Free Speech

Throughout the debate over the ordinance, opponents insisted that prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people would result in anti-Christian persecution and harassment. One of those critics was Allan Parker, president of the San Antonio-based Christian legal group The Justice Foundation. Last September, Parker warned that the ordinance would be used to target Christians:

[Parker] said the ordinance is vague and unclear but he believes it can and will be used against Christians, especially those in the business world who disagree with unbiblical sexuality.

“The leverage of the city to pressure any business to caving in is enormous under this,” he explained.

But one year later, even Parker admits the ordinance hasn't ushered in a wave of anti-Christian legal action. Only two complaints have even been filed under the ordinance - one from a transgender man who alleged he had been fired because of his gender identity and another from a lesbian couple who said they were asked to leave an ice house after sharing a kiss. 

In a statement to Equality Matters, Parker suggested that the small number of complaints was due to the city allegedly refraining from enforcing the ordinance:

I believe because of the outcry against the ordinance, the City and the LGBT community have refrained from actively enforcing it.  Their major goal of “stigma removal” and the “soft tyranny” of the threat of criminal prosecution has been achieved. 

But as Bernal told Equality Matters, the existing ordinance included safeguards against religious discrimination even before LGBT protections were added.

“It's not intended to persecute any group,” Bernal said. “It's crafted in such a way that protects everybody.”

Deputy city attorney Veronica Zertuche told Equality Matters that her office hadn't fielded any complaints of discrimination against conservative Christians in the past year.

“The issue [of religious discrimination] has not arisen,” Zertuche said.

San Antonio's experience isn't unusual. A 2012 study of local non-discrimination ordinances by UCLA's Williams Institute found “almost uniform compliance” with the ordinances, with no localities reporting spikes in frivolous litigation.

Implementing The Ordinance

Then-Mayor Julian Castro was a fervent supporter of the expanded non-discrimination ordinance last year. But when he left office in July of 2014 to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he was succeeded by Ivy Taylor, one of the three council members who voted against the measure's passage.

While Taylor's opposition to the ordinance's LGBT protections raised red flags for San Antonio's LGBT community, spokesman Cary Clack told Equality Matters that the new mayor is committed to moving forward with its implementation.

Concurrent with the first anniversary of the council's vote, Clack said that Taylor will name “an advisory committee composed of representatives from the LGBT community,” with one member designated as the mayoral liaison to LGBT San Antonians. The city also plans to roll out a website about the non-discrimination ordinance on September 4.

Bernal said that he's been satisfied with the way the mayor has handled implementation.

“Any time you implement something new, you have to work the kinks out,” Bernal said. “I'm very pleased that she's seeing that through.”

In the meantime, Bernal said he's been cheered to see misinformation gradually recede as the city becomes more inclusive.

“From the very beginning, I recognized that people were using it as a political platform and to shroud their own biases,” Bernal said, “but if you know anything about this city, as a whole, we have a giant heart.”

Equality Matters also reached out to Liberty Institute president Kelly Shackelford, a prominent opponent of the ordinance, who did not reply to requests for comment.