HOUSTON — Houston voters convincingly defeated a controversial equal rights ordinance that critics said threatened religious liberties and put into jeopardy the safety and dignity of men and women in private places like bathrooms. Proposition 1, also referred to as the “bathroom ordinance,” failed by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.
“I think it’s significant,” Ed Young, pastor of Houston’s Second Baptist Church, told the TEXAN when asked about the margin of victory. “I think there are enough people in the city who still have and will vote godly principles. A lot of people did some soul searching and said this is enough.”
Young joined others at the Houston Area Pastors Council “watch party,” where everyone seemed cautiously optimistic the organization’s work would pay off.
After 18 months of legal battles including a court trial, two Texas Supreme Court decisions, appeals and a move by the mayor’s office to subpoena pastors’ sermons, council members felt they had done what they could do. The rest was in God’s hands.
The year-and-half-long battle over Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) created a divide within the fourth-largest and one of the most racially diverse cities in the nation. If passed, the ordinance would have required businesses and public areas to permit individuals to use the restroom of the gender with which they self-identify. Critics cited religious liberty concerns as well as potential safety concerns if, for example, a male sexual predator claimed to identify as a woman in order to have access to women and girls in public restrooms.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, an open lesbian and advocate for HERO, responded to the defeat of the ordinance by criticizing its opponents.
“This is a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies. Deliberate lies,” she said. “They just kept spewing an ugly wad of lies from our TV screens and from pulpits. This is about a small group of people who want to preserve their ability to discriminate.”
A similarly divisive ordinance was passed in Fayetteville, Ark., last year. In December 2014, Fayetteville residents voted to repeal the measure only to have the same ordinance, with slight modifications, approved by the city council and the mayor six months later. And residents approved it.
“These kinds of conflicts really pit communities against each other,” said Ron Lomax, director of missions for Washington-Madison Baptist Association in Fayetteville, Ark.
Lomax could only speculate as to why residents would vote for one ordinance and not the other, but he noted that without a change of guard nothing new could go into or out of city council. The coalition of churches and civic leaders, as in Houston, that rallied to repeal the ordinance also fought to get two of their own elected to the Fayetteville city council. Only one was successful.
Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, emphasized the need to do the same nationwide because the fight in Houston is not unique. Civic engagement, he said, should go hand in hand with other ministry within the community.
And, for now, the racially and culturally diverse pastor coalition that fought an 18-month-long battle saw the fruit of their labor.
“This has been a long battle,” Welch told the group after the initial results showed an overwhelming defeat of the ordinance. “There is no way we humanly could have persisted through and carried this to the conclusion without the hand of God. So I want to give Him all the glory.”
The fate of Proposition 1 was being watched from across the nation. In the days before the election President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton threw their support behind the proposition. On the other side of the issue, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, issued a press release recalling some of the darker days that the Houston pastors walked through in their effort to repeal the ordinance. He recalled his comments from a year ago when the sermons of five Houston pastors were subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit.
“I argued then that the preaching of the church of God does not belong to the government, and we will not hand it over. Not now. Not ever,” Moore stated. “Here, the people of Houston have spoken and said the same is true of the conscience. The defeat of this proposition ensures that the consciences of men and women will not be steamrolled, and that unsuspecting citizens will not be put into vulnerable situations.”
Going forward, the pastors reminded the crowd of why they fought this good fight. Khahn Huynh, pastor of Vietnamese Baptist Church, said, “Churches, this is the beginning. We need to rise up and preach the Gospel. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ — He loves the sinner but He hates sin. And that’s our language. That’s our message. We are not hating on people, but we are standing on His Word. The Gospel is a Gospel of hope.”