Armed with clipboards and a sizable sense of outrage, a band of conservative activists rallied against proposed changes to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance and launched a plan to oust the man behind them.
The group of about 15 went door to door in neighborhoods throughout Councilman Diego Bernal‘s downtown district seeking the 6,000 signatures needed to recall his election. They argued his proposed revisions, which would add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, were unnecessary and would come at the expense of their own rights to religious freedom.
“Bernal and others are using LGBT people as a political football to prop up the mayor, on one hand, and to try to keep people out of city hall that aren’t progressives,” said Weston Martinez, a former council candidate and president of the Texas Freedom political action committee.
For his part, Bernal called their efforts insulting.
“It makes our city look ridiculous,” he said. “Of all the things that I’ve tried to do in my first two years, they want me out of office because I want to treat every person in this city fairly and equally?”
The recall effort came as the latest salvo in an increasingly contentious debate over the ordinance changes, which are scheduled for discussion by the full city council for the first time this week.
Under Bernal’s proposal, city officials would be prohibited from discriminating based upon a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or other defining characteristics.
Early on, religious groups objected to language they said would also have barred anyone found to have discriminated against such protected classes from serving on city boards. They argued that the proposal would exclude people of faith from public service because of their opposition to gay marriage.
Bernal maintains that his original proposal carried no such language. He issued a revised draft that removed the existing city ordinance that stood at the center of the conflict.
Many of those seeking signatures for Bernal’s recall Saturday pointed to the excised elements to explain the proposal.
“I’m ashamed of my councilman,” said District 1 resident Jack M. Finger. “He’s trying to take away my right as a Christian to serve on city boards.”
One activist was greeted with a blank stare when he asked the owner of a home near the intersection of Basse Road and Broadway if she opposed the nondiscrimination ordinance.
“It would allow a transgendered person to use the women’s restrooms,” the activist said. Bernal’s proposal includes no such provision, but it elicited a shocked expression and a quick signature on the recall petition.
Martinez said Saturday the attempt to oust Bernal was a reaction to attacks on District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan for comments she made in a secretly recorded audio posted by the Express-News earlier this month.
On the tape, recorded by a former staffer during a private strategy session, Chan described homosexuality as “disgusting” and expressed her belief that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt because it could confuse children. The statements have drawn ire nationally from LGBT groups and rallied her supporters, who argue Chan was exercising her First Amendment rights.
“I’d say 90 percent of (the drive to recall Bernal) is about what has happened to Councilwoman Chan in the last couple of weeks,” Martinez said.
Bernal called such logic misguided and in recent days has taken steps to clear misperceptions about the ordinance. In an email to supporters Friday, he outlined in detail what his proposal would and would not do.
“The reason this issue is so divisive is not because of the idea that we should treat the gay people in our lives fairly,” he said. “It’s divisive because people have purposefully lied and attempted to confuse the public to achieve and end.”
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