AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group representing a thousand member churches has sued the city of Austin over the city's employment anti-discrimination ordinance, saying the ordinance needs exceptions for religious groups who don't support "homosexuality, transgender behavior, or the ordination of women."
The Houston-based nonprofit U.S. Pastor Council filed the lawsuit on Saturday, Oct. 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division. They believe their case is backed up by the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution, and the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.
The lawsuit cites, but does not identify, 25 U.S. Pastor Council member churches in Austin who they believe are impacted by Austin's ordinance. KXAN has reached out to the U.S. Pastor Council as well as Jonathan Mitchell, the attorney representing them, and is waiting to hear back.
"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," the lawsuit states.
The suit says these churches will not consider "practicing homosexuals or transgendered people" for any type of church employment. The lawsuit goes on to say many of the U.S. Pastor Council member churches believe the Bible forbids a woman from serving as clergy.
Currently, the city of Austin's code prohibits employers from discriminating "based on the individual's race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability." The portion of the code cited in the lawsuit has been in existence since 1992 with several updates since then.
"Nondiscrimination is a core value in Austin and we need to defend it," said Austin's Mayor Steve Adler in a statement to KXAN responding to this lawsuit.
A city of Austin spokesperson also commented about this lawsuit Tuesday:
"The City is proud of our anti-discrimination ordinance and the protections it provides. The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual. We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections."
"If the plaintiffs prevail in this suit, it would undermine the ability of Austin or any other similar city to pass an ordinance saying in this city we don't accept sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination," said Holt Lackey, a partner at Ellwanger Law LLLP.
Lackey specializes in employment law and has helped many clients argue their discrimination cases using Austin's local anti-discrimination ordinance. He explained that Austin's law provides a greater degree of legal support for those experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity or sexuality than just the state or federal law alone.
He explained previous legal precedents support what's known as the "ministerial exception," which protects religious groups to select leaders regardless of discrimination laws. However, he noted the law is less clear when it comes to people employed by the church who don't have any religious function.
Austin is far from the only city to watch this debate play out. In 2015 voters rejected the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) which provided protection against discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Lackey added that more cities have been passing nondiscrimination ordinances in the past decade or so, including other Texas cities like Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso.
"That's frankly where the country's been going and even where the courts have been going in recent years, I think this lawsuit is part of an attempt to push back at that trend," he said.
Especially because the lawsuit is filed in Austin, Lackey said he wouldn't be surprised if it quickly becomes a "political hot potato" for the state.
"I anticipate this lawsuit is one of the opening salvos in an attempt to make the rights of transgender Texans a political hot-button in the coming legislative session," Lackey said.
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