Monday, October 20, 2014

Much ado about something

Annise Parker is the openly gay mayor of the City of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.  At her urging, earlier this year, Houston's city council enacted a broad anti-discrimination ordinance, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family or marital status, military status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

These last two categories have proven controversial--particularly the "gender identity" category.  The ordinance prohibits discrimination against persons who are anatomically or genetically one sex but who identify with the other sex. For some reason, protecting people who fall into that category engenders (if you'll pardon the pun) a great deal of hatred and histrionics among conservatives.  

The City of Fayetteville recently enacted a similar ordinance.

I suppose that the people who oppose this measure are uncomfortable with being unable, legally, to express their hatred and intolerance of differences by deliberately causing unnecessary pain in those who are different.  In some cases, they clothe this hatred, this desire to treat others inhumanly, in the mantle of "traditional values."  Traditional values, they argue, prohibit us from giving societal approval to gender-bending.  Hate may indeed be a traditional value among that crowd, but traditional does not necessarily mean "good."

In other cases, opposition to this ordinance is driven by what they term a desire to protect innocent citizens from sexual predators.  The argument is that an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against men who dress and live as women requires businesses and organizations to allow men to enter women's bathrooms in order to engage in various types of sexual deviancy, up to and including sexual assault.

The theory is that in order to assault women and children who are using a women's bathroom, men will pretend to be women, dressing as women for the purpose of lurking, undetected, until they can execute the planned assault.

The truth is that this ordinance will make it illegal to bar anatomical men who live as women from using women's facilities.  But to suggest that it will somehow leave us without recourse to prohibit sexual assault, or that sexual predators will be emboldened by this ordinance, is simply foolish.

I've been in probably thousands of public restrooms in my lifetime.  Never once has anyone checked my genitals at the door to determine whether I could enter or not.  Men who want to commit this kind of sexual assault are no freer to do so than they have always been.  A man who makes a practice of gratuitously exposing his genitals in the women's restroom--or worse--could be reported and could, even under this ordinance, be arrested and charged.

Like so many conservative attacks on progressive legislation, this one is also ridiculous.  HERO is the law in Houston, and in time I believe it will properly become the law everywhere.

Several Houston-area megachurches, conservative in theology, have launched a challenge to the ordinance.  Unsatisfied with representative democracy in which their position is no longer dominant, these churches have led the charge to subject HERO to a citywide referendum.  They gathered more than 50,000 signatures on petitions to force a vote, but because of numerous errors in the signature-gathering process, there were only about 17,000 valid signatures, not enough to call for a referendum.  So they have sued the city, seeking to have their invalid signatures counted.

And that's where things get sticky.  As part of that suit, the city issued civil subpoenas to the churches, demanding that the churches turn over sermons and other communications with parishioners regarding HERO, the mayor, the petition drive, and other related topics.  As you might imagine, that act has been met with howls of derision, complaining that Houston is now seeking to make it illegal to preach against homosexuality, and that this is merely the first (or latest) step toward interning conservative Christians in concentration camps.

These complaints, as far as they go, are rooted in ignorance.  Houston is not seeking to outlaw speech against homosexuality.  It claims it is not even interested in assessing whether these churches violated their obligation not to engage in political activities based upon their tax exemption.  Rather, Houston is attempting to determine whether the churches gave instructions to their parishioners regarding how to fill out a petition, in order to show that the advocates were aware of the requirements for petitions but deliberately disregarded them.  That might be relevant to the lawsuit, depending upon what arguments the advocates make in support of their lawsuit.

But probably not.  It was a bad idea to issue these subpoenas.  Communications between a religious leader and his or her congregants are essential to the exercise of religious freedom.  Creating a situation where religious leaders believe their statements can be subpoenaed by the government and used against them in a proceeding creates a chilling effect on those statements.  The government has no business inquiring into the content of those statements.  I can see only two reasonable exceptions to that policy--one being the situation in which a religious leader incites followers to violence, the other being political activities that violate the requirements for tax-exempt status.  Even the second makes me uncomfortable; instead, I would prefer that we simply repeal the tax exemption.

Less importantly but with more impact, the city miscalculated, or forgot about, the extreme sensitivity of many Christians to any real or imagined attack on their privileges.  For that reason, it was a bad political maneuver.  Nothing motivates many Christians into a tantrum more quickly than suggesting that they aren't above being questioned.

Somehow I doubt that many of the people who are so outraged by the subpoenas because of the loss of rights those subpoenas represent would be equally outraged if the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were taken away by a majority vote. 

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