The chambers of City Hall were packed Monday night as residents, city staff, advocacy organizations and state officials debated the ethical and moral implications regarding a revision to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Amidst passionate pleas from supporters and opponents, the Plano City Council voted 5-3 to approve the amendment to its Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which is now called the Equal Rights Policy, to include residents’ sexual orientation, genetic information and gender identity. While some supported the measure as progressive and inclusive, others threatened the policy would lead to lawsuits and declining business.
“I asked our staff to review both our internal policies and our ordinances as were related to equal rights and equality. It was clear and was determined that we were deficient; we weren’t contemporary in some of our language,” said City Manager Bruce Glasscock, at the meeting. “We don’t have a problem now and we shouldn’t have to wait until we have a problem. This, in our opinion, is the right thing to do. These changes, I believe, are reflective of the values of Plano as a diverse, inclusive community that values and respects the rights of all of our citizens.”
The city’s non-discrimination ordinance was first adopted in 1989. According to the revised ordinance, discrimination based on a resident’s sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited in regards to public accommodation, employment, housing transactions and city contracting. However, religious and political groups as well as nonprofit organizations are exempt from the ordinance.
City Attorney Paige Mims said the ordinance also includes a waiver process for businesses to be exempt if the owners feel the policy would not allow them to conduct business based on their personal faith. Individuals and organizations found in noncompliance to the ordinance would be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, the least severe class of misdemeanor. While the ordinance does make it illegal to discriminate against gender identity in a public place, Mims said that would not extend to public restrooms and locker rooms which would still be segregated based on physical anatomy.
“We realize that privacy interests need to be balanced with equality interests,” Mims said at the meeting. “We took a lot of care to look at constitutional issues and freedoms that people have that are protected under the law ... We’ve recognized in this ordinance that due process needs to be allowed and if people do have those [religious] defenses, they’re required under law to give the city notification ... and we’re going to evaluate that.”
Despite the intentions of city staff and promises to work with businesses regarding the implementation of the ordinance, some residents expressed anger about its adoption. Many of the people who spoke at the meeting said it would discriminate against their religious rights. Others said that the policy was an example of government overstepping its boundaries.
District 66 Representative-elect Matt Shaheen, along with other elected officials, sent a letter to the city council prior to the meeting stating that the public and other state officials had not had enough time to look at the ordinance. He also said that he would be meeting with other officials in the Legislature to see if there was any legal or constitutional recourse to overturn Plano’s vote.
“The citizens of Plano are good, decent people and this is more the city council overreach of government. Our citizens in Plano are good people and are welcoming and gracious. This is an insult to the citizens of Plano,” he said. “There was no consideration to people’s moral values or religious faith. There’s an issue with that. There’s a clear overreach. It was a clear intrusion on the religious rights of citizens that the council did not consider that. There’s significant flaws.”
Shaheen’s sentiments were echoed by Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Plano-based Liberty Institute - a conservative, religious legal organization - who promised to follow the council’s vote with a lawsuit and expressed outrage at not being involved in the city’s drafting of the policy.
“This ordinance is unlawful and it is unconstitutional,” Mater said at the meeting. “Suffice it to say, if you pass it, we will sue you.”
With the passage of the Equal Rights Ordinance, Plano will become one of the few cities in the state to have policies in place that specifically protect residents’ sexual orientation and gender identity. Other cities with similar ordinances include Austin, Houston and Fort Worth. However, there is no state law that officially protects those issues in employment and public accommodation matters.
According to Mims, Plano’s ordinance was drafted in-house and stands alone among the other nine cities with homosexual and transgender equal rights policies in that it provides many exemptions and that restrooms remain segregated. She said that city staff has been in contact with other cities with these ordinances and that while there was some initial push-back from resident groups in those cities, overall their implementation has been met with acceptance and largely without legal issues.
The city plans to handle the policy’s implementation by contacting and working with organizations and business owners to minimize infringements on individual rights and to settle legal matters without a fine or lawsuit.
“Staff has worked hours ... on crafting this ordinance in a manner to provide as much respect on both sides of the issue,” said Mayor Harry LaRosiliere. “In moments in history things aren’t always as clear to us as it will be down the road, and so when change is in motion it’s difficult for people to accept it, yet history proves right and wrong. And very often we vote on council issues and it’s a matter of opinion and every now and then we vote on what’s right and wrong. This is the right thing to do, it’s as simple as that.”
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