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Conservative Groups Suing Austin Over Nondiscrimination Ordinance

The advocates say lawsuits challenging the city’s code prohibiting employers from discriminating against an “individual’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability” won’t hold up in court.

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Austin City Hall
Austin City Hall. Photo credit: Todd Ross Nienkerk / That Other Paper under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

After two conservative Christian groups filed lawsuits against the city of Austin over the past week challenging an ordinance that protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, Texas LGBTQ advocates said Wednesday they do not think the lawsuits will hold up in court. 

The first lawsuit, filed in federal court Saturday against the city by the U.S. Pastor Council, a conservative Christian organization based in Houston, argues that Austin’s nondiscrimination ordinance is unconstitutional because it does not allow churches the religious freedom to refuse to hire gay or transgender individuals. 

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions. 

Austin’s city code prohibits employers in the city from discriminating against employees based on “the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability.” The lawsuits claim the nondiscrimination ordinance forces individuals to take actions contrary to their religious beliefs. 

The U.S. Pastor Council, which also backed the 2017 session’s failed “bathroom bill” that would have restricted access to public restrooms for transgender Texans, said in its lawsuit that the city’s failure to exempt its 25 Austin churches from the nondiscrimination ordinance violates its rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“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 people” as clergy or general church employees, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also said member churches will not consider or hire women to be senior pastors in its churches. 

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.” 

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. 

David Green, the media relations manager for the city of Austin, said in a statement that the city is “proud” of its ordinance and is prepared to “vigorously defend” it in court. 

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights. 

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit. 

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.” 

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session. 

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination. 

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.” 

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Matt Zdun is a reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune. He is a senior at Northwestern University studying journalism and economics. Before joining the Tribune, Matt worked at CNBC, where he wrote breaking news stories and produced segments for the midday show. He has also covered criminal justice for the Medill Justice Project, climate change for the Medill News Service and economics for the Northwestern News Network. In his free time, Matt plays piano and guitar and enjoys finding new places to eat mac and cheese.

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Austin

Austin PRIDE Announces Date for 2019 Festival & Parade

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The Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages and organizes Austin’s PRIDE celebration, has announced that the 29th annual Austin PRIDE Festival and Parade will take place on SATURDAY, AUGUST 10, 2019. This year’s theme is Boogie Wonderland.

The 2015 Austin Pride Festival at Fiesta Gardens. Photo credit: Chase Martin/therepubliq

The festival will return to Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach in Town Lake Metropolitan Park (a/k/a Fiesta Gardens) from 11 AM – 6 PM and feature entertainment, games and activities, drinks, food, family zone, and 140+ booths featuring local non-profits organizations and businesses. Tickets on the day of the event will be $20 for adults (18+), $10 for youth (7-17 years old), and FREE for children six and under. Discounted advanced tickets will go on sale in the near future at www.austinpride.org.

The Apple contingent in the 2015 Austin Pride Parade
The Apple contingent in the 2015 Austin Pride Parade. Photo credit: Chase Martin/therepubliq

The parade will step off at 8 PM. The route through downtown Austin remains unchanged from previous years; starting at the south gate of the Texas State Capitol Building, heading down Congress Avenue, then turning on 4th Street going through the Warehouse District before ending at Republic Square. The parade is free and open to the public.

The parade and festival are projected to bring in over 400,000 attendees, making it the largest single day event based on attendance in Austin. By comparison, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has 75,000 attendees and South by Southwest has 285,000 attendees.

Registration for booths at the festival and spaces in the parade is now open online at www.austinpride.org/paradeandfestival.

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Austin City Manager Announces Assistant City Manager Hires

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Austin City Hall
Austin City Hall. Photo credit: Todd Ross Nienkerk / That Other Paper under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has selected Rodney Gonzales and Chris Shorter as Assistant City Managers in his first steps toward reorganizing the executive team to align with Austin’s Strategic Direction.

Mr. Gonzales will oversee departments and projects focused on economic opportunity and affordability. Mr. Shorter will manage efforts on health & environment and culture & lifelong learning.

“Rodney and Chris stood out amongst the other candidates as people who understand the challenges facing Austin. It was clear to me that they’re well-prepared to work with our community and our employees to advance strategies that can address those challenges in a way that aligns with our priorities,” said Cronk. “Both of them are ready to hit the ground running.”

Rodney Gonzales

Austin Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales
Austin Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales will oversee departments and projects focused on economic opportunity and affordability. Photo courtesy: City of Austin.

Rodney Gonzales comes to the Assistant City Manager role having served in leadership roles in Development Services and Economic Development for the City of Austin over the past 12 years. Mr. Gonzales began his career in finance, serving as the Director of Finance for the cities of San Marcos and Luling, TX. He holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s degree from Texas State University.

Chris Shorter

Austin Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter
Austin Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter will manage efforts on health & environment and culture & lifelong learning. Photo courtesy: City of Austin

Chris Shorter has served in leadership roles for the District of Columbia (DC) Government for the past 10 years. Most recently he has been the district’s Director of Public Works which provides environmental services and solid waste management for residents. He has also held roles as Chief Operating Officer (COO) for DC’s Department of Health and as COO and Chief of Staff for the district’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Mr. Shorter received a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public & International Affairs and a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Selection Process

This process started in late July when Cronk issued a memo outlining the restructuring of the City Manager’s Office around outcomes articulated in the Strategic Direction 2023. His memo detailed the process for an open recruitment for four Assistant City Manager positions and one Deputy City Manager, beginning this Fall with the recruitment of these two positions.

In September, a survey was released to the public asking them to identify the skills and characteristics they felt were most important for City leaders to possess. The response to the survey helped build the job posting and candidate profiles. Cronk solicited additional feedback in September from the quality of life groups and with community groups related to the areas of responsibility on which each Assistant City Manager will focus. This information was used to inform Cronk’s selection.

“The feedback I received at the start of the process has been invaluable in identifying leaders whose background and approach will align with the expectations of our community moving forward,” Cronk noted, adding his recognition for those who have served in interim roles during the search. “Both Sara Hensley and Joe Pantalion deserve thanks and credit for the seamless leadership they’ve provided. They’re an example of the incredible skill and deep professional depth we have here at the city.”

Hensley and Pantalion will return to their jobs as Director of the Parks and Recreation Department and Watershed Protection Department, respectively.

The recruitment for the next two Assistant City Managers, overseeing Mobility and Safety, opened on November 20. The search for a Deputy City Manager is slated to begin in Spring 2019.

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UT-Austin Reaches Deal For New $338 Million Basketball Arena

A corporation, Oak View Group LLC, will pay to construct the arena in exchange for future revenue generated at the venue.

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A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously voted to authorize its flagship university in Austin to arrange for a private group to construct and manage a new $338 million on-campus basketball arena.

A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

The California-based Oak View Group will build the 10,000-seat venue and then convey it back to the university, school officials said. In return, the group will manage the venue, sell its naming rights and collect revenue from concerts and other events. Revenue from managing the stadium will allow the company to recoup its cost, officials said. 

The venue is scheduled to open in 2021. The Oak View Group will reserve a specific number of dates for University of Texas at Austin basketball games and other events. 

A tentative design of the interior of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the interior of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

The arrangement — set to last for 35 years — means the university will get a new arena without having to spend any of its own money, school officials said. UT-Austin President Greg Fenves touted it as a first-of-its-kind deal. 

“This is a very exciting day for the University of Texas,” he said. 

Once completed, the arena is expected to replace the university’s 41-year-old Frank Erwin Center as the venue for basketball games, and outside events, like concerts, brought in by the corporation. 

Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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