The Confusion of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance

June 26, 2014

By Kyle Bryant
 
On Wednesday, May 28, Houston City Council passed the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance after an 11–6 vote. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics in city employment, city services, city contracts, housing, public accommodations, and private employment.
 
The language in the ordinance is controversial, and its passage raises a host of questions for individuals, employers, and small businesses in Houston. For example, what does the ordinance specifically protect? To whom exactly does it apply? What are the consequences if one disobeys the ordinance? And how might it affect Christian business owners? The following is a bullet-point summary of the ordinance and what it prohibits:
 
•       The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.
•       The ordinance applies, with certain limited exceptions, to Employers with 50 or more employees (that number decreases to 25 employees in year two and 15 employees in year 3); City employment; City services; City contract awards; public accommodations; and housing.
•       Religious Organizations are exempt (Religious Organizations include churches, educational institutions controlled or managed by churches or denominations, and non-profits controlled or managed by churches or denominations).
•       People who believe they have been discriminated against must file a written complaint with the Inspector General within 180 days of the alleged violation.
•       Violations of the ordinance are punishable by fine up to $500 for the first offense and no more than $5,000 for the same complaint. It is also a Class C Misdemeanor for the first offense.
 
For small businesses and employers who fall within the 50-employee minimum, there are a couple of provisions that will be important to consider. Federal anti-discrimination laws, which have been in place for many years, cover most of the acts prohibited by the Ordinance. The new areas of protection, however, are gender identity and genetic information.
 
The ordinance prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against a person on the basis of their gender identity, an inherently subjective characteristic that is determined by a person’s perceived gender expression apart from their biological sex. In other words, there is no objective way to verify a person’s gender identity like there would be to identify someone’s race, ethnicity, or age. When we legally protect the dissonance between someone’s feelings and their reality in this way, we have laid the foundation for confusion and abuse of power. Imagine if we gave the same protection to someone’s perceived race, age, pregnancy, or military status—“yes, I know I am only 14, but my body and experiences tell me that I am 21. Can you please serve me a beer?” Or, “I know I never served in the military, but I inherently identify with those who have. Where are my veteran’s benefits?” We may scoff at such ridiculous examples, but the underlying reasoning is the same. When it comes to sexuality, our culture has replaced true reality with a false reality and called it equality.
 
In light of this new reality, however, Christian business owners (and Christians in general) need to be discerning in how they think, speak, and act with regard to this ordinance.
 
Christians should recognize that certain parts of this ordinance are an attempt to normalize and protect activity that turns God’s creation on its head. The Bible tells us that God made men and women, and he made them differently (Gen. 1:27). Gender is given to us as a grace of God and reflects different aspects of the glory of God. Therefore, we are right to treat men as men and women as women. The cultural confusion surrounding gender and sexuality, however, now makes it illegal to treat men as men when they view themselves as women (and vice versa). The City of Houston is inadvertently requiring business owners to forsake their conscience or face fines and penalties. The ordinance is bad for families, bad for businesses, and bad for society.
 
But how should Christians act in light of these new prohibitions? At the very least, faithfulness to God’s Word in this area requires much wisdom. The Bible tells us to be submissive to the rulers and authorities that God has placed in the civil realm (Titus 3:1). Peter also reminds us to be “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution . . .” (1 Peter 2:13). As Christians, we have the freedom to do this because we know that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. Christ’s Kingdom will not be brought about through legislation, political power, or the prevailing rulers in our municipalities. It will be brought about by the transformation of peoples’ hearts through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No city ordinance can accomplish that.
 
At the same time, this new ordinance places extra restrictions on our liberty and poses a threat to our society. In this sense, Christians should resist this and any similar ordinances through all lawful means. Business owners should make use of the public square to declare the excellencies of God and the way he ordered creation. We should be well-reasoned in our positions and passionate in our pleas for robust liberty. We should implore our representatives to allow business owners to conduct business according the dictates of their consciences. Most importantly, we should strive to spread the gospel in Houston and live honorable lives. But until the Holy Spirit moves first in peoples’ hearts, we should not be surprised that the culture continues down this path.
 
Christians are called to be reformers, not revolutionaries. And reformation moves from the bottom up, not the top down. If we’re honest, we can likely act in full obedience to this ordinance without disobeying God’s ordinances. Until a full-throated revival takes place in Houston, we should work towards obedience whenever possible. That said, if you find yourself having to choose between obeying God and obeying man, obey God. Ultimately, we only answer to Him

Kyle Bryant is an attorney (and urban design enthusiast) with Bryant Law in Houston, Texas. His practice focuses on civil litigation and family law issues. He is also an active member at Sojourn Heights Church in The Heights neighborhood of Houston. He can be reached at kyle@bryantlaw.net
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