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Houston LGBT Ordinance Fight 'Ground Zero' for Religious Liberty?


HOUSTON -- A diverse coalition of Houston pastors is hoping to defeat an LGBT ordinance on the ballot Nov. 3.

The proposed nondiscrimination law would undermine religious liberty in an effort to provide protection for sexual minorities.

It also poses a potential risk to women and children by allowing men in women's bathrooms via protection language on gender identity.

The 'Big Lie'

Dr. Ed Young, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, recently told his congregation, "This is a moral issue and if the Body of Christ does not vote and speak out, we are gone in the 21st century."

Annise Parker, Houston's openly lesbian mayor, said the ordinance is necessary to protect gay and transgender people, but evangelical pastors say it's also putting people of faith at risk.

"We are being discriminated against in our judgment, not the other way around," Young told CBN News.

"It's saying, 'We're doing this to stop discrimination, to help all sorts of people.' But inside the ordinance there's a big lie. There's a danger," Pastor Hernan Castano, senior pastor at Rivers of Oil Church, told CBN News.

Like many other nondiscrimination ordinances, the proposed law seeks to protect people from discrimination based on characteristics such as sex, race, age, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, it does not include strong protections for people of faith.

"That baker's going to have to bake a cake for that same-sex couple," First Amendment scholar and University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell-Wilson told CBN News.

Putting Women at Risk
It's a troubling prospect for faith-based organizations and Christian business owners. Baker Jesus Guerrero manages a Houston bakery and said the proposed ordinance would collide with his Christian beliefs.

"If we don't feel comfortable doing something, we shouldn't be forced to make a wedding cake," he told CBN News.

Photographer David Postma, who owns Genesis Photographers, said he doesn't want to work gay ceremonies because of his biblical beliefs on marriage. He fears a lawsuit and has begun to re-focus his business.

"We have already started backing out of the wedding market," he told CBN News. "I don't advertise weddings at this point."

Other business owners oppose the ordinance because of its language on gender identity. It would permit men and women to use whatever public bathroom they choose.

Edd Hendee owns Taste of Texas, a high-end steakhouse in Houston. He said the city did a poor job writing the law.

"It imposes criminal fines and penalties on me, the business owner, if I don't allow a person of one gender to go into the other person's bathroom," he said.

Ground Zero for Religious Liberty
The so-called "bathroom issue" plus religious liberty concerns has galvanized Houston's faith community. The showdown began in May 2014 when the Houston City Council approved the ordinance.

A coalition of evangelical pastors then organized a signature drive to place the measure on the ballot. After the mayor rejected their signatures, the pastors sued the city, prompting the mayor to subpoena five pastors' sermons.

The Texas Supreme Court eventually sided with the pastors and agreed to put the issue before the voters.

Now, national and local LGBT activists have raised close to $3 million to persuade voters to approve the ordinance.

Dr. Steven Hotze is fundraising to defeat the measure and says his opponents are well-organized and well-funded.

"Houston's ground zero on this," he told CBN News. "If Houston falls and Texas falls to the homosexual political movement on this issue, the country's gone."

Both sides see Houston as a key battleground. It's the last major city in the country without a non-discrimination law. It's the fourth largest city in the country and it's known for its conservative views.

LGBT activists have pushed for more than 200 nondiscrimination laws in cities and counties across the country. With the Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage, activists have targeted non-discrimination laws as the new focus. 

"We see LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances coming into existence and that's where the real game is at," Fretwell-Wilson said.

In most cases, the laws provide protection for sexual minorities while also stripping away protections for people of faith.

History Repeating?

History is repeating itself for Pastor Castano and his congregation, many of whom immigrated from countries known for oppressive regimes.

"The dream of coming to America, of being an American citizen and having a business and the freedom to make your choices, of religious freedom -- it's truly in danger," Castano said.

"And people see this as a repetition of what happened in their countries when it all started and they are concerned and they're praying," he said.

Guerrero isn't sure what he'll do if voters approve the ordinance and he's forced to choose between his conscience and the law. Postma said he is discouraged by the rapid change and hostility toward his beliefs.

"I want to have my freedom of choice to do what is biblical and that is eroding away," he told CBN News.

Historically, Houston's registered voters don't turn out to vote on local issues, but the stakes surrounding this one may just change their minds.

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