Friday, November 6, 2015

HERO: Looking back; looking forward

Houstonians defeated HERO this week.  Reasonable people must now work to find a middle ground that prohibits discrimination, treats people fairly and does not do so in a way that makes things unsafe for others.  Surely this is possible. Soon, though, another issue will take its place. When it does I hope the church will be a reasoned, moral voice in public conversations.  The church has as much right to share it's views and advocate for what it believes in the public arena as any other group in America and should not be shy about doing so.  Our Constitution makes it our right.  The Bible makes it our responsibility.

For the last eighteen months the HERO ordinance has been at the forefront of the Houston news scene. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was passed by the city council in May 2014 despite opposition from conservative groups, particularly evangelical Christians. The ordinance made it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment, city contracts and access to public accommodations  (things like restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues, etc.) based on a variety of categories:  "sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy."

Opponents thought the action had the effect of normalizing behaviors they considered wrong and made it possible for anyone to use any bathroom based on their gender identity. So they collected signatures calling for a referendum which would put the issue before the people of Houston for a vote. Officials with the city of Houston countered by disqualifying enough signatures so as to keep the issue off the November 2015 ballot.  When opponents challenged the city’s ruling in court, the city countered by subpoenaing the sermons of five Houston area pastors. Now the issue of religious freedom came into the conversation. Public outcry in Houston and across the nation led Mayor Parker to withdraw the subpoena. Eventually the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the city of Houston must either withdraw the ordinance or put it before the people for a vote in the November election.

This week the citizens of Houston defeated the HERO ordinance by almost a 2:1 vote (61% to 39%). Why? Mayor Parker and other supporters of HERO say it is because those who opposed the ordinance lied to the people and used scare tactics to mislead the people. (For Mayor Parker’s assessment, [click here].)  Some political analysts said the ordinance was defeated because those who supported the ordinance used the wrong argument to rally voters to support HERO. Rather than focus on equal rights they should have focused on the potential negative financial implications on the city should HERO be defeated, namely that the 2016 NCAA Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl would be moved away from Houston (note, following the vote both events organizing committees have said they will go on as planned).

Amidst all the charges of misleading tactics and inadequate strategies, I find myself wondering if there might be another, less-complicated reason the ordinance was defeated. Mayor Parker said "No one's rights should be subject to a popular vote.” Could it simply be that the majority of voters believed the issue was not “rights” but right and wrong? I’ve not met anyone who said they were out to deny another person their rights. I’ve met many who said some things are right and others are wrong and for them that’s what the HERO vote was about for them.

The election has passed. The voters have spoken. It’s time to stop the rhetoric that demonizes those who do not agree with our personal and political views. Name-calling does nothing to advance anyone’s cause. It didn't work on the playground and it has no place in public dialogue.

But that's not enough.  Reasonable people must now work to find a middle ground that prohibits discrimination, treats people fairly and does not do so in a way that makes things unsafe for others.  Surely this is possible.

HERO was defeated, but another issue will take its place. When it does I hope, I pray that the church will be a reasoned, moral voice in public conversations.  The church has as much right to share it's views and advocate for what it believes in the public arena as any other group in America and should not be shy about doing so.  Our Constitution makes it our right.  The Bible makes it our responsibility.

Jesus said his followers were salt and light in the world. May that be true of this generation of Christ-followers as well.

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