Panelists spoke in front of a full house Saturday at Denton City Hall on whether the city should adopt an LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance, or whether such a policy would restrict religious freedom.

Denton City Council member Jesse Davis moderated the discussion as a part of his “Conversation Over Controversy” series Saturday. Panelists included advocates for an ordinance, a city staffer and two people offering views from a Christian perspective.

The council chambers was mostly calm with an occasional outburst from the audience in agreement or disagreement with something a panelist said. Many in the audience wore purple shirts or sported purple bandannas to show support for an ordinance.

The prospect of adding protections for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender has been a topic of discussion, but it’s not scheduled for a City Council agenda anytime soon. While it’s a topic that has caused tension, Davis said, he wanted to start a conversation about the issue rather than add fuel to the fire with people arguing on social media.

“We need to hear a conversation from different perspectives,” Davis said. “The idea in the name [‘Conversation Over Controversy’] is not to say anybody’s particular position is controversial. It’s to say that we have a tension point in the community and it’s time to talk it over.”

The big question is whether the city should follow in other Texas cities’ footsteps in explicitly providing protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

There is currently no federal law that does this, but at least 22 states and Washington, D.C., express protections for people based on sexual orientation or gender identity or both, according to the Williams Institute.

Although three panelists expressed the need for an ordinance, James Mann, lead pastor at New Life Church of Denton, said this is not something for Denton — instead, it should be handled at the federal level.

“We want to make sure everyone’s taken care of, but this isn’t the way we do it,” Mann said. “We need to wait for the [federal] government to do their job. We need to step back and stay in our lane. City Council — keep the parks nice, and policemen and firemen happy and fill potholes.”

Mann reiterated this sentiment throughout the discussion.

Carmen Cruz, the founder of PRIDENTON, which organizes Pride events in Denton, said there should be legal protections put in place against discrimination of LGBTQ people.

Cruz, who is gay, said some parallels can be drawn between discrimination based on sex and race to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but the big issue is that some people still believe it’s a choice to be LGBTQ.

“How does the city of Denton right now investigate other charges of discrimination from classes that are protected?” Cruz said. “I imagine the city of Denton has a process, so all we have to do is add three classes to the list — sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.”

Davis said the city doesn’t regulate discrimination. If a Denton resident submitted a complaint about being denied a job or a home due to discrimination, it would go to a federal or state workforce commission.

Since Mann came into the conversation from a faith-based perspective, he said his only anxiety about an anti-discrimination ordinance would be with religious freedom and whether religious freedom would still be respected. Much of the conversation Saturday surrounded religion.

Paul Juarez, the executive director of First Refuge Ministries, didn’t explicitly provide support or opposition to an LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance.

His nonprofit offers medical and dental services, counseling, food and more for people in need. When asked if First Refuge would turn someone away because of their identity, he said they would serve anyone who financially qualifies for service.

“[Denying service] would actually be dishonoring and against my faith,” Juarez said. “It’s actually more of an emphasis that I need to serve.”

Amber Briggle, a local advocate, said she struggles with the line of religious freedom and LGBTQ anti-discrimination in finding where in the Bible “Jesus said feed and clothe thy neighbor, but don’t give them a job.”

Business owner George Ferrie, who is gay, said religious organizations shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He also said the advocacy group OUTreach Denton has received multiple emails from people seeking lawyers after being fired due to their identity.

“I don’t think [churches] should be able to discriminate,” said Ferrie, a former City Council candidate. “We’re talking about nonprofits that don’t pay taxes to our city. I put money into this city, not only individually but as a business owner. I want to see our community as I pay into it.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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