Arts center sues San Antonio claiming discrimination

Wednesday, August 5, 1998

An arts center focusing on women, homosexuality and Hispanic issues filed suit in U.S. District Court yesterday claiming that the San Antonio City Council pulled some $76,000 in funding because of the group's non-traditional viewpoints.

“This is about fear of other people,” said Graciela Sanchez, executive director and founder of the Esperanza Center. “Rather than fearing, we should be talking about respecting each other. And the arts are an important part of understanding of one another.”

With the lawsuit, Sanchez said the center hopes not only to regain the lost funding but to bolster a better understanding of San Antonio's diversity.

Esperanza Center v. San Antonio, stands as the first lawsuit concerning a government-funded arts program to surface in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in NEA v. Finley last June.

In its 8-1 ruling, the court upheld “decency and respect” as elements that may be considered by the National Endowment of the Arts and other government bodies in determining grants to artists and cultural groups. But the court warned that panels or councils which discriminate against viewpoints when allocating money would be violating the First Amendment.

For many arts groups and civil libertarians, the Esperanza Center case fits the bill to test the free-speech implications of the June ruling.

“The next phase is here,” said David Greene of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, claiming that Esperanza lost funding because of its homosexual and Hispanic programs. “We may never have as clean a set of facts as these again.”

The San Antonio City Council cited budget problems when it administered across-the-board cuts to arts programs last September. But the council eliminated all of its Esperanza Center funding while reducing its allocations to other city-funded arts organizations by only 15%.

Sanchez said the $76,000 cut amounts to about 16% of the center's budget. She added that because the cut came only a few weeks before a new budget year, the center couldn't secure the money from other sources. Money planned for programs had to be spent on building upkeep and the center's air conditioning.

Sanchez said that Esperanza provides a variety of cultural arts to the San Antonio area, including programming which tackles issues of racial and gender equality, peace in Central America and gay rights. One of the center's efforts is the San Antonio Lesbian and Gay Media Project, which produces an annual film festival called Out at the Movies.

San Antonio Mayor Howard Peak denied the decision was discriminatory, noting that the city continues to fund an all-gay men's chorus called the Alamo City Men's Chorale.

In an interview with The New York Times last fall, Peak said Esperanza Center officials “seem to go way beyond what people want their money spent on. That group flaunts what it does. It is an in-your-face organization. They are doing this to themselves.”

Last September, one councilman stated that the chorale retained much of its funding because “everyone knows they're gay, but it's not brought up. Those boys just stand up there and sing. The Esperanza promotes a way of life.”

Sanchez said her group is about understanding, not politics.

“We're wanting to challenge our city leaders and the rest of the city of San Antonio to respect diversity in religion, culture and sexuality,” Sanchez said. “Otherwise, we'll find ourselves going back to a time when segregation was the norm and women didn't vote.”

Peak said on Tuesday that he hadn't heard about the lawsuit. He declined to comment on it.

He said a peer review panel recently finished examining budget requests to determine which agencies and groups deserve funding in the next fiscal year.

“They [Esperanza Center] had been recommended to receive some, but for what amount I don't know yet,” Peak said. “The council is within weeks of the next go-round [of budget allocations], so the lawsuit was probably not good timing on their part.”