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Houston equal rights ordinance now on appeal

HOUSTON (BP) — The push for a referendum on a controversial Houston ordinance has moved into appeals court, continuing the battle over sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

“We talk about the days of my parents when poll taxes and other things were used to eliminate the process of the voting for minorities,” Willie Davis, pastor of MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church, told reporters at a news April 30 conference called by the Houston Area Pastors Coalition.

“And here we have a city mayor … who denies the entire city of Houston the right to vote,” said Davis, one of nearly 100 individuals who circulated petitions to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

Davis’ comments came as pastors opposed to the ordinance announced their appeal of a district judge’s ruling April 17 on a jury’s mixed verdict two months earlier. Judge Robert Schaffer’s ruling left opponents 585 validated signatures short of qualifying for a citywide repeal vote in November.

The appeal sparked a second round of harsh words by the city’s lead attorney, Geoffrey Harrison.

Having “lost the jury verdict and lost the judge’s ruling,” Harrison said the opponents’ “misguided appeal sounds like a continuation of their three-ring circus of discrimination, intolerance and hate,” according to a report in the Houston Chronicle. After the April 17 district court ruling, Harrison said it was “a powerful smack-down against the forces of discrimination and intolerance.” Houston Mayor Annise Parker had made passage of the ordinance a priority for her administration.

Andy Taylor, lead counsel for pastors opposing the ordinance, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN that the appeal has three elements.

First, a writ of mandamus asks the Texas Supreme Court to order Houston City Secretary Anna Russell to verify the voter registration of all 54,000 petition signers — something she has not done since stopping her count just short of 20,000 after verifying the minimum number of signatures needed to pass the referendum. Her signature verification subsequently was dismissed by Parker and then-City Attorney Dave Feldman.

Second, the appeal asks the Texas Court of Appeals to expedite the process, giving plaintiffs a hope of meeting the Aug. 18 deadline for placing the referendum on the November ballot, although the case is likely to go to the Texas Supreme Court.

Third, Taylor filed a writ of mandamus with the appellate court asking, again, for the expedited process. A writ of mandamus is a request of a court to rule without the full benefit of court proceedings, which can take six to 18 months. A writ of mandamus is rarely granted, but Taylor said because of time constraints his clients have no adequate remedy to their complaint.

Woodfill v. Parker will be heard by the 1st or 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston.

The Houston ordinance went into effect after Schaffer’s April 17 ruling.

Schaffer, of Houston’s 152nd District, rendered the post-trial judgment involving a range of city legal issues over what constitutes a valid signature on a petition. The judge spent two months sorting through a trial jury’s February verdict as well as ongoing legal motions from both the city and opponents of the ordinance.

Schaffer’s ruling credited the petition drive with 16,684 valid signatures — 585 short of the 17,269 requirement that would have placed the ordinance on the ballot last November, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election. The petition for a referendum was launched after Houston’s city council passed the controversial measure, called HERO by its supporters, in an 11-6 vote last May.

Opponents of HERO — led by the multi-ethnic No UNequal Rights Coalition — subsequently gathered nearly 54,000 signatures. Petitions circulated by 98 individuals underwent extensive legal challenges by city officials last August, at one point dropping the number of valid signatures to 3,905, though the petitions had notary public verifications.

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