SAN ANTONIO — Gay rights advocates and religious conservatives were expected Thursday to pack a City Council meeting for a vote on nondiscrimination protections that are already in place elsewhere in Texas but that have drawn rebuke from big-name Republicans.
The proposal would amend San Antonio's nondiscrimination code to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and thereby add the nation's seventh-largest city to a list of nearly 180 other U.S. cities with similar ordinances, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
What began as a local issue has mushroomed into a heated debate attracting GOP heavyweights such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the early favorite in the 2014 governor's race.
Abbott warned the city that passing the ordinance would invite a lawsuit, though a carefully worded letter to Democratic Mayor Julian Castro on Wednesday did not say that challenge would come from the state.
"Forced compliance with the proposed ordinance does not promote diversity. It tramples it," Abbott said. "And when the diversity being trampled is religious diversity, the Constitution must be reckoned with."
Gay rights victories in Texas haven't come at the Capitol but at city hall. While nondiscrimination bills in the Legislature have languished, Houston has a lesbian mayor and Austin offers health benefits for same-sex couples.
The conservative pushback in San Antonio is notable coming on the turf of Castro, a rising star who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last year. It also sprouts a weed in Castro's narrative that San Antonio embraces political values that he says are spreading statewide and will eventually turn Texas blue.
Castro said the opposition to what he called an "overdue" and level-headed amendment was disappointing.
"These days, unfortunately, it's campaign season," Castro said. "What else would you expect?"
For Republicans, who hold every statewide office in Texas and mock predictions that a Democratic resurgence is on the horizon, the San Antonio proposal has rallied supporters and become an early stakeout ahead of the 2014 primaries.
Hundreds of congregants from black and Latino churches have rallied against the ordinance on the steps of City Hall.
"I consider this an attempt to impose a liberal value system over the objection of millions of Texans," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who as a Republican state senator sponsored a constitutional amendment that defined marriage in Texas as between one man and one woman. "It actually discriminates against those with deeply held religious views by pushing this agenda to the extreme."
Staples is running for lieutenant governor next year. One of his primary opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, said the ordinance "runs counter to the Holy Bible and the United States Constitution." Cruz said he was encouraged to see "Texans standing up to defend their religious freedoms."
Attention surrounding the ordinance spread far beyond San Antonio last month when City Councilwoman Elisa Chan was caught on tape calling homosexuality "disgusting" and arguing that gays should not be allowed to adopt. The comments were surreptitiously recorded during a staff meeting by a former aide, who shared the audio with the San Antonio Express-News.
Chan has defended her comments and has vowed to stand for freedom of speech and right to privacy. During a packed hearing about the ordinance last week, Chan received several standing ovations.
Chuck Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said claims that the ordinance would result in religious infringement are untrue.
"In the context of public accommodation, you can say, 'I think you're disgusting, I think you're going to go to hell — would you like baked potatoes or fries with that order?'" Smith said. "It does not suppress any expression of their beliefs, religious or otherwise."
Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso have ordinances making it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and some have been on the books longer than a decade. Smith said adding San Antonio to the list would nonetheless be a major victory given the fierce opposition that has erupted within the past month.
Victories on a state level in Texas remain much more elusive for gay rights advocates. Asked to recall a significant recent achievement in the Legislature, Smith took a long pause, then pointed toward a statewide nondiscrimination law proposed in the Senate this spring.
Not because the bill passed, but because it was filed at all.
"It's hard to tell when things will turn around," Castro said. "But my hope is that the time will come very soon."