News Column

San Antonio Nonbias Rule Gets Chambers' Backing

Aug 30 2013 3:11AM
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San Antonio skyline (file photo)

Aug. 30--The city's two most influential chambers of commerce have joined supporters in favor of updating the city's nondiscrimination ordinance, in the face of opponents who claim it would harm local businesses.

The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have both backed the measure after thorough internal debate, their leaders said.

If the council approves it next Thursday, the measure would add protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and veteran status, and bring together all of the city's nondiscrimination policies into one chapter.

Ramiro Cavazos, the president and CEO of the Hispanic chamber, spoke in favor of the ordinance Wednesday on behalf of his board. It was the first time the group has publicly weighed in on the issue.

Cavazos was the first of about 500 people who signed up to speak on the proposed ordinance at Wednesday's City Council meeting.

"We've had Councilman Bernal come twice to both of our government affairs and our small-business committees," Cavazos said Thursday. "It was a pretty healthy debate, but we see it as aligned with our own mission to provide equal opportunity for folks."

Richard Perez, president and CEO of the Greater Chamber with nearly 1,750 members, said his board weighed the issue for weeks before concluding it should support it.

"We supported it on the grounds that we cannot as a business community be supportive of discrimination in any form. And that was kind of it," Perez said. "That's how it came down. It was pretty straightforward, ultimately."

Both chamber presidents said their groups had robust debates over the issue before reaching the conclusion to support the ordinance. Bernal met personally with members of both groups to explain the thrust of the proposal.

"I think it's tremendous," Bernal said of the chambers' support. "They know it's good for business, that an inclusive environment always produces more opportunity."

In a position statement dated Aug. 22, the Greater Chamber points out that 96 percent of the top Fortune 500 companies include employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and that several companies in San Antonio already have included similar employment protections.

Five of the state's largest cities -- Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston -- and more than 180 other U.S. cities have similar LGBT protections in place, the statement notes.

Still, faith-based opposition remains strong. During Wednesday's public meeting, many read scripture from the lectern and condemned homosexuality as a sin.

Some have said it would force Christian business owners to violate their morals because they wouldn't be able to deny service to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

They also have said the inclusion of the three additional protected classes would violate their freedom of religion and right to free speech.

Supporters say the ordinance would do neither.

"It's extremely controversial in the city, and I was at the B-session and saw the hundreds of people that were there, and unfortunately, it has become very volatile," Perez said. "But as far as the business community is concerned, it's pretty straightforward. It's about being a welcoming city, and discrimination in any form will not be tolerated by the business community in San Antonio."

Republicans gearing up for the state primaries in March have taken aim at the San Antonio proposal.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, a candidate for governor, released a statement Monday against it.

"I oppose the proposed ordinance because it would not prevent discrimination, but impose it: stifling speech, repressing religious liberty and imposing burdens on those who hold a traditional view on human relations," Abbott said. "The proposed ordinance runs contrary to the Texas Constitution, which prohibits religious tests, and also defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman."

Abbott's statement came from his campaign -- not his state office -- a point made Wednesday by Councilman Rey Saldana during the council's first deliberation on the proposal as a full body.

Abbott and others have attempted to link same-sex marriage to the local proposal, but there's no correlation between the two, City Attorney Michael Bernard stressed during his presentation Wednesday.

Bernard told the council the ordinance doesn't attempt to legalize same-sex marriage or require businesses to provide same-sex benefits to its employees.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who's running for lieutenant governor, called the initiative a "politically motivated measure" in his political campaign for office.

"The proposed San Antonio ordinance runs counter to the Holy Bible and the United States Constitution," he said in a written statement. "I am proud to stand with the faith community leaders of San Antonio against this ordinance."

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, issued an open letter Thursday to Mayor Julian Castro that says she believes the ordinance would alienate Texans.

"Any ordinance that ostracizes a majority of its citizens for their personal religious beliefs is wrong, whether you agree with those beliefs or not," she wrote. "It threatens our liberty and epitomizes the worst of Big Government. This ordinance doesn't strengthen our rights as citizens. It weakens them."

Bernal said that no matter how many statements, clarifications or fact sheets the city puts out, the opposition "continues to say things that aren't true."

"At a certain point, I became convinced a large part of it is theater," he said. "And I only say that because they continue to say things that aren't true, over and over again. I'm dumbfounded by it -- but learning to not be surprised."

jbaugh@express-news.net

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