Two conservative groups in Texas filed lawsuits against Austin’s nondiscrimination ordinance claiming it infringes on their religious beliefs.
The first of these was filed in federal court last Saturday on behalf of the U.S. Pastor Council, which claims to represent 25 churches in the Austin area.” The complainants allege that Austin’s laws banning discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability” fail to uphold the “religious freedom” of faith groups opposed to LGBTQ rights.
“Because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered [sic] people,” the lawsuit reads.
In a letter to the Austin City Council, U.S. Pastor Council Executive Director argued these laws effectively force churches to hire “homosexuals as clergy.”
“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” he wrote in July. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”
The U.S. Pastor Council claims Austin’s hiring laws violate a slew of state and federal laws that it argues allow churches to fire or refuse to hire anyone they like if employing those individuals would violate their religious beliefs. In addition to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the group says the ordinance contravenes the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Passed in 1999, Texas’ RFRA proclaims that governmental agencies cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”
While the U.S. Pastor Council’s complaint specifically regards the Austin’s regulation of local hiring practices, a second suit filed just days later is far more sweeping in its scope. The conservative policy organization Texas Values seeks to allow landlords to deny housing to LGBTQ tenants, clergy to refuse to perform same-sex weddings, and employers to deny partner benefits to LGBTQ employees,
Its lawsuit also includes a backdoor attempt to ban trans people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. According to complainants, faith-based businesses should have the right to restrict bathroom access based upon “biological sex.”
The complaint, however, doesn’t just apply to members of the LGBTQ community.
Texas Values argues that property owners should have the right to refuse to rent to individuals “who are engaged in non-marital sex of any sort, including homosexual behavior.”
City officials claimed Austin would not back down from protecting its LGBTQ citizens in all areas of public life.
“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green in a statement released earlier this week. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”
LGBTQ advocates believe the city of Austin will prevail in court.
“Nondiscrimination ordinances are designed to protect populations that are vulnerable to discrimination, and they exist because these municipalities have determined that discrimination is wrong and that fairness and equal treatment are values that they want to support,” Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith told the Austin American-Statesman in a statement.
“These are lawsuits whose purpose is to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people and attack municipalities that enact ordinances that reflect the views and values of residents of those cities,” Smith added.
Supporters of the nondiscrimination ordinance point to the fact that critics of the law have yet to cite injuries resulting from its enactment.
After filing its challenge to the law in an Austin District Court on Monday, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz said the group receives calls “all the time” from people who “are afraid if they simply exercise their rights that they are going to be prosecuted or punished.”
But when local news media asked Saenz for any instance in which a person of faith’s rights were infringed upon, he reportedly could “not provide a specific example.”
Although Texas is one of 30 states without laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of both gender identity and sexual orientation, several cities have enacted laws like Austin’s with little backlash. These municipalities include Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.
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