Right-wing media outlets are spreading fake news about Austin’s LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights ordinance.
“Churches in Austin, Texas may soon be forced to hire homosexual and transgender employees, including pastors, if a city ordinance is implemented,” reads a story posted Wednesday on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s website. (CBN is the home of Pat Robertson and other homophobes.)
It links to a similar article posted last week by the far-right Christian Action Network, which bears the headline “Forcing Churches to Hire Homosexual, Transgender Ministers Will Go National.”
Well, no. Many cities and states around the U.S. prohibit private-sector businesses and nonprofit groups from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. But churches’ right to hire ministers who meet their standards remains protected by the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. Many churches don’t allow women to be ministers, just as many don’t allow LGBTQ ministers, and these laws have not interfered with their hiring practices. The ordinance also has an exemption allowing religious schools and charities to limit hiring to members of their own faith.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Pastor Council, a Houston-based group of conservative ministers, filed a federal lawsuit in October seeking to strike down Austin’s ordinance, which has been on the books for some time; the lawsuit coincided with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. The Pastor Council wants to broaden the religious exemption, saying churches and affiliate organizations should be free to discriminate in hiring for positions that have nothing to do with ministry. (There have been lawsuits over such discrimination around the nation, involving LGBTQ employees who work in a religious school’s food service, for instance.)
“The lawsuit also seeks a court order declaring that churches affiliated with the U.S. Pastor Council have a right under the U.S. and Texas constitutions to exclude the hiring of gay and transgender people and, if required by church bylaws, bar women from serving in senior pastor positions,” the Austin American-Statesman reported in October. The thing is, they already have that right when it comes to ministerial positions, and the jury is out -- in some cases, literally -- on whether positions as teachers, food pantry workers, and church music directors qualify as part of ministry.
The Christian Action Network article makes the alarmist statement that ordinances like Austin’s will lead “to the collapse of First Amendment protections altogether.”
“In the past, we have too often waited and watched from the sidelines, silent,” Dave Welch of the Pastor Council told CAN. “We decided that that is not possible anymore, that’s not acceptable.”
Actually, the Pastor Council hasn’t always been on the sidelines. It advocated for a 2015 ballot measure that resulted in the repeal of Houston’s LGBTQ-inclusive human rights ordinance. The repeal campaign was marked by many ads portraying transgender people as predators in public restrooms.
But city officials in Austin, a famously liberal oasis in largely conservative Texas, have pledged to defend their ordinance vigorously in court. “Nondiscrimination is a core value in Austin and we need to defend it,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told local TV station KXAN.