Naked City

Edited by Audrey Duff, with contributions this week by Roseana Auten, Andrea Barnett, Nelson England, and Alex de Marban.

AUTONOMY'S JUST A WORD: Besides a very public loss of face, the October 9 expulsion of University Baptist Church (UBC) from the Austin Baptist Association means that the 74-year-old church is "cut off from a number of ministries," including Baylor University, said UBC pastor Larry Bethune. The forced disfellowship occurred over UBC's decision last year to ordain a gay man as a deacon in the church. Many longtime church members quit the congregation in protest, and there has been a strong word-of-mouth campaign on the UT campus against UBC, Bethune said.

Unlike some other Christian denominations, the Baptist church has a congregational governance structure; autonomy of the individual church is a primary tenet of the faith. So the Association's decision to kick out UBC is, in itself, rather questionable, Bethune noted. "It is a betrayal of the Baptist understanding of local autonomy for the Association to do this," said Bethune. He added that UBC will likely be expelled from both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention.

UBC is also allied with the American Baptist Convention, but that ap-pears to be no insurance against being shunned once again. Last month, a major American Baptist church in the Columbus, Ohio, area was kicked out of its local association because the church extends its ministries to gays and lesbians, without requiring them to become straight. - R.A.

ELECTROLYSIS ON REBATES: Slimming down for the expected onslaught of competition, the city's Electric Utility Department (EUD) plans to "reengineer" the ever-contentious energy conservation rebate program. The move may eventually result in reduced electricity rates, says Roger Duncan, assistant director of the Environmental and Conservation Services Department (ECSD). The ECSD administers the rebate program with EUD money.

"We're doing a massive relook at the way we're doing things," says Duncan. Part of that includes smaller rebates to businesses and homeowners that install energy conservation measures; the EUD is proposing a reduction of about 5-20% beginning April 1, 1996. The ECSD expects to recommend the reduced rebates to the council in either December or January. Duncan expects the bulk of the reductions to come from commercial rather than residential rebates. The move should appease Councilmember Eric Mitchell somewhat - he unsuccessfully targeted commercial rebates for elimination in early June.

As for the more commonly used residential program, the reductions are already underway. Sort of. The ECSD reduced its rebates slightly in the spring of 1994 to accomodate increased participation during the summer. Since then, participation has remained high enough that the ECSD can ill afford to raise the rebates back to their previous levels, as would be expected, says Duncan.

To Chris Strand, a member of the Austin Air Conditioning Contractors' Association, the ECSD's refusal to increase residential rebates indicates the EUD's growing favoritism towards its larger commercial customers. Those customers are the most likely candidates for departure from the EUD's grid once the Legislature allows retail competition, which some experts say may come before the end of the decade. "It's an indication that the ECSD's commitment to the residential customer seems to be slipping," says Strand, of Strand Brothers, an energy conservation company that serves residential customers. - A.M.

EAST MEETS WEST: The Austin Transportation Study (ATS) held a public hearing October 9 on a proposal by Councilmember Gus Garcia to turn Fifth Street east of I-35 into a major arterial connecting with West Fifth Street. Currently there are only four continuous downtown thoroughfares between West and East Austin: Cesar Chavez, Seventh, 12th, and Martin Luther King. According to Garcia, not only is there a need for another East-West thoroughfare, but the proposed arterial would also complement a future transportation corridor on East Fifth Street that is part of the ATS's 25-year-plan. The proposed corridor would include Capital Metro's proposed Intermodal Facility, the light rail line from East Austin to downtown, the federally funded public space Plaza Saltillo, and a pedestrian promenade to be called "Rambla East."

Seven East Austin business owners and neighborhood representatives spoke in favor of the project, saying that it would reduce the I-35 barrier between East and West Austin, open up a commercial center in what is now an area of vacant lots and high crime, and relieve traffic on Cesar Chavez and East Seventh. However, two members of the East Austin neighborhood group, El Concilio, said that the planned arterial would displace some East Austin residents in order to benefit businesses. The priority for East Austin should be affordable housing rather than commercial development, said Robert Donnelly, president of the East Town Lake Citizens' Association. The ATS will allow further public comment at its November 13 meeting, before voting on whether to include the East Fifth arterial in its transportation plan.

Lucy Buck, representing the Downtown Austin Alliance (formerly the Downtown Maintenance Organization), presented another plan for reducing the I-35 barrier, in which the main lanes of the freeway would be submerged beneath ground level. To further reduce the East-West barrier effect, Buck proposed eliminating the overhead ramps descending into downtown from I-35, and allowing 14 ground-level street corridors between East Austin and downtown to pass over the submerged freeway. The freeway frontage roads, also at ground level, would be converted to tree-lined commercial boulevards. Major exits from I-35 to downtown would be restricted to the two ends of the area, on Cesar Chavez and 15th Street.

At next month's meeting, the ATS will select three priority road projects, and send a delegation to the Texas Transportation Commission to request additional funding for them. The three projects will be selected from among nine proposed segments of the US290, US183, MoPac, and the Outer Loop, totalling more than $140 million in costs. - N.E.

FREEDOM TO GAY-BASH: The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court weren't the only ones considering the merits of Romer v. Evans last week. The case of Amendment 2, the Colorado law that would deny legal protections to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, was also the topic of a brown-bag lunch discussion at the University of Texas School of Law, led by Professor Elvia Arriola.

The case calls into question a state constitutional amendment passed by Colorado voters in 1992, prohibiting local governments, school districts, and state and local agencies from enforcing measures designed to prevent discrimination against homosexuals. The Supreme Court's decision will likely turn on whether the justices find that prohibiting the prevention of discrimination violates the14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by denying gays, lesbians, and bisexuals equal protection under the law.

"Imagine that [Equal Protection] is like a blanket that sits all over you as citizens. It doesn't matter if you're a member of a protected class or not," Arriola says. "This [law] is like taking the blanket, carving a little hole in it, and saying `everyone is protected but you.'"

Arriola says that the defense - the pro-amendment advocates - are putting forward six arguments, only two of which have much legal foundation: states' rights to make their own laws, and the rights of religious people to discriminate based on their beliefs. "This is what drives the coalition," she says. "They have an absolute, sincere belief in their right to discriminate against homosexuals."

Gay rights groups and conservative religious advocates across the country are awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling. (The justices held a secret vote last Friday, but won't hand down a decision until next summer.) If the amendment is upheld, it could give the go-ahead for similar legislation in other states. But if the court rules that the amendment is discriminatory, Arriola says, that avenue of attacking homosexuals will probably be closed. -A.B.

OFF THE DESK: Early voting continues until November 3 on the 14 proposed state constitutional amendements. Call 473-9553 for polling locations. Election day is November 7. The Chronicle will offer a complete list of the proposed amendments next week... The #2 Dinner at Güero's shall henceforth be known as the "El Presidente" dinner; that's what President Clinton ordered when he visited the South Austin eatery this past Sunday. (See page 26 for more on El Prez.)

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