Rafael Cruz, the fiery pastor and father of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, is well known for his conservative and Christian bona fides, and now he has inserted himself into a local city council issue in Plano, Texas, claiming an anti-discrimination measure is an “attack on Judeo-Christian beliefs in America.”
The measure that has Cruz so fired up is an equal rights ordinance passed late last year by the City Council of Plano, Texas. When it was passed, the ordinance’s backers on the Council did not predict much commotion. The measure, after all, merely extended existing provisions forbidding discrimination in housing and employment to include sexual orientation and gender identity, putting the city largely in line with federal law.
Instead, Plano, a city of under 275,000 on the outskirts of Dallas, is quickly becoming a suburban Stonewall.
Opponents of the ordinance say preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is against their religious beliefs as Christians, and that being required to follow the new rules is an assault on their personal liberty. That’s an expansive interpretation of religious liberty, but one which has been used across the country by religious conservatives to deny wedding services to same-sex couples and, most famously, for owners of privately held companies who oppose abortion to deny insurance coverage of birth control to women employees.
In this case, losing the ability to deny gay people access to public housing projects “is an attack on religious freedom, an attack on freedom of speech, an attack on freedom of thought,” said Cleve Doty, counsel at the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based organization “dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America.”
“The law prohibits anyone from offending people based on their sexuality or sexual orientation, sexual identity, those types of things,” Doty said. “They should call it ‘The Plano Non-Offense Ordinance’ but I guess that doesn’t sound so good.”
When the measure passed 5-3 last month, outraged opponents catcalled council members at a packed public hearing, vowing to vote out of office the five offending lawmakers. One pastor warned the meeting that the measure would “change the social fabric of the city.”
When one attendee yelled out, “See you in November!” a reference to conservatives’ plans to vote the lawmakers who voted for the bill out of office, first-term Mayor Harry LaRosiliere yelled back, “It’s May, by the way, not November”—a reference to the fact that municipal elections in Plano occur in the spring, not the fall.
Before the vote, LaRosiliere, a Democrat, gave a searing defense of the bill, comparing it to efforts to eradicate slavery and segregation.
“Frankly, the question is not, ‘Why now?’” he told the audience. “The question is, ‘What took us so long?’”
Conservatives are battling back. The city’s churches are organizing a drive to put the measure to a referendum on the May ballot. They have until Tuesday to turn in the equivalent of 20 percent of residents who voted in the last election: several thousand signatures.
And of course, they have Cruz on their side.
At a press conference announcing the formation of the Texas Pastor Council, an organization dedicated to overturning the measure, the elder Cruz, who lives nearby, said, “This is an attack on Judeo-Christian beliefs in America,” adding that “It’s time people of faith become involved in the political arena.”
Meanwhile, a group calling itself the “People in Support of the Equal Rights Policy of Plano, TX” has been distributing flyers that they say call out opponents of the measure on their untruths. Some of these include the ideas that “the policy promotes ‘deviant’ sexual behavior,” that it “is part of a ‘radical left agenda,’” and that it “allows ‘biological males’ to enter women’s restrooms.”
Instead, supporters say, the new policy excludes restrooms, exempts religious organizations, political organizations, non-profits, and businesses with fewer than 15 employees from compliance, and that it “does not regulate people’s beliefs,” adding that “if someone’s beliefs result in a conflict with compliance, there is a process for obtaining a waiver.”
Doty, of the Liberty Institute disagrees. He says that under the new law, “If you look at someone the wrong way, or fail to look at someone the right way,” the “un-elected city manager” can institute an investigation, which could lead to a fine, and if the fine is not paid, imprisonment.
“I hear all kinds of offensive things all the time,” he said. “Now those things are subject to a city investigation.”
“Look, this is not a problem here,” Doty added. “This is Plano, Texas. People generally treat people pretty well, as far as anyone can tell.”
Opponents say that it was passed quickly, under the cover of darkness just before the Christmas season to prevent churches and religious-minded residents from being able to organize. They say that it is remarkably similar in its language to non-discrimination ordinances other cities have passed: proof, they say, that liberal groups in Washington, D.C. are behind the push. They point out that Plano’s representative in the state legislature publicly stated that he had not heard about the measure until the Council brought it up for a vote. That lawmaker, Rep. Matt Shaheen, a Republican, is now planning to bring a bill up for a vote in the state legislature that would prohibit local governments from extending civil rights beyond what is enshrined in the state constitution.
Mayor LaRosiliere did not return a request for comment, and backers of the measure appear to be laying low in hopes that the storm will pass.
At least until Tuesday, that does not seem likely.
“Bureaucrats are trying to force us to accept sexual behavior as a protected class alongside race or religion and there are those of us who disagree with that,” said Dave Welch of the Pastor Council. “LGBT people do not meet that standard. They are highly privileged, highly educated. There is no evidence of discrimination against them as a class. Now is there anecdotal evidence of people saying something to them? Yes, but Christians have dealt that with that too.”