HOUSTON (BP) — A district judge will hear arguments Friday (Aug. 15) in a lawsuit brought by local pastors charging city officials intervened inappropriately in the validation process of a petition calling for a referendum on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
The ordinance, known as HERO, extends civil rights protection to individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. If the judge does not rule by Friday, petition organizers could miss the Aug. 18 deadline to get the ordinance on the November ballot.
A temporary restraining order barring the implementation of the ordinance was issued Aug. 7. Opponents of the ordinance, a racially diverse group of pastors and parachurch leaders, called the No Unequal Rights Coalition, filed the suit Aug. 5. The suit was filed against Mayor Annise Parker, city secretary Anna Russell and the city of Houston charging they violated the petition validation process as outlined by city charter. The case will be heard at 1:30 p.m., Aug. 15 in the 152nd Judicial District Court.
“The evidence seems very clear that something inappropriate was going on,” Jonathan Saenz, an attorney, and executive director for Texas Values, said.
Within a few weeks of the ordinance’s passage by city council, a petition drive garnered more than 50,000 signatories demanding the controversial measure go before the voters. Pastors, volunteers and paid personnel with the coalition previewed 31,000 of the signatures for accuracy and submitted them to the city secretary’s office July 3. Russell had 30 days to certify the signatures and report her findings to city council.
In an Aug. 1 letter to Parker and the council, Russell noted she had validated 17,826 signatures — more than enough to call an election on the issue. She had gleaned those numbers after inspecting only 19,177 signatures, resulting in a certification rate of 93 percent. But in the same letter Russell stated, as a result of the city attorney’s independent review of the petition pages, 2,750 of the 5,199 pages were declared ineligible for consideration. That left only 15,249 signatures for review, 2,000 short of the 17,269 needed to call a referendum.
City attorney David Feldman’s actions, which the coalition contends are not sanctioned by the city charter, disqualified not only the pages but valid signatures on those pages. The attorney, in an Aug. 4 letter to Russell, said his review of the petition revealed too many irregularities forcing him to declare them invalid. Some of the irregularities cited by Feldman cannot be found in the city charter, such as illegible signatures by the petition circulator.
“Feldman did not have the legal authority to intervene with the validation and acted as judge, jury and executioner by declaring 2,750 entire petitions invalid due to his claim of technical problems,” Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC), stated in an Aug. 7 press release.
Parker, the city’s Mayor, has been outspoken in her support of the ordinance and took its passage personally. As a lesbian in a long-term relationship with another woman, Parker said the ordinance was about her. It has received unwavering support from the LGBT community. But other Houston residents challenged the ordinance calling it a threat to religious liberty. As has been the case in other states, they fear local business owners will be forced to offer services in violation of their religious convictions or face a fine.
A plaintiff in the lawsuit, Max Miller, an African American pastor and president of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity, said in an HAPC press release, “We are disappointed in the complete lack of integrity by this administration but unfortunately not surprised that they went to this extent in their attempt to silence the voices of the people.”
Many of the pastors in the coalition are African Americans leading African American congregations; some are veterans of the Civil Rights movement. The group has voiced their disagreement with the equivocation of civil rights based on immutable characteristics, such as race, with characteristics based on sexuality.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).