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Plano petition drive succeeds, Houston awaits day in court

PLANO, Texas (BP) — Plano Citizens United, a coalition of churches and civic leaders, cleared the first hurdle this week in rescinding a city ordinance that legal experts said would stymie free speech and religious liberty, while opponents of a similar ordinance in Houston prepare to take their fight to court.

With no preexisting ministerial alliance in place, Plano churches were caught unprepared when the city council, led by Mayor Harry LaRosilier, passed an ordinance Dec. 8 creating a protected class of citizen based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With help from the Houston pastors’ coalition, opposition to the ordinance was hastily organized and a successful petition drive launched.

In order to force the repeal process, the coalition needed signatures of 3,822 registered Plano voters. The volunteer group verified more than 4,000 signatures before submitting nearly 7,000 to the city secretary Jan. 20.

“The mayor has been adamant,” Mike Buster, executive pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, said. “He will not discuss this with anyone. The citizens of Plano said we will discuss it. We will vote on it.”

The ordinance, like Houston’s and scores of others passed in cities across the nation, is championed by the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization calling for civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The ordinances are beginning to meet opposition as they are brought to light.

Plano is home to the Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy organization. Their attorneys joined the Citizens United legal battle and stated in a press release, “Government officials have demanded that family businesses and employees be punished for simply trying to exercise their faith beyond the four walls of their church or in their homes.”

Opponents of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, passed last May, are taking their battle to court next week. Barring any delay by Houston’s legal team of city and pro bono attorneys, jury selection should begin Monday, Jan. 26.

The No Unequal Rights Coalition, led by a racially diverse group of Houston pastors, gathered 50,000 signatures on a petition to force the ordinance’s repeal. Following verification by City Secretary Anna Russell, City Attorney David Feldman disqualified thousands of pages of signatures, effectively defeating the recall effort.

The coalition filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston, Feldman and Mayor Annise Parker demanding they recognize the signatures and present the petition to City Council as required by law. A jury will determine if Feldman and Parker acted outside their authority in squelching the referendum.

No such interference has come from Plano city administrators, said Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, which led opposition to Houston’s ERO and helped coordinate the Plano referendum effort. However, he said, hostility from the LGBT advocates was swift.

“It just got ugly real fast. It was very enlightening,” Welch said.
Welch said coalition headquarters received antagonistic phone calls and business owners opposed to the ordinance were threatened with demonstrations outside their businesses.

Buster said, “We have to state, always up front, we love all people. And this is an issue of religious liberty.”

Mark Reid, a Plano Citizens United volunteer and small business owner, told The TEXAN arguing against “anti-gay” and “bigot” labels is futile.

“The issue is not about hating anyone. I don’t fight it on that basis,” Reid said.

Instead he demands protection of his First Amendment rights. As an employer whose crews work in schools and churches, he can admonish employees for inappropriate behavior. But with the Plano ordinance in full force, Reid said his speech — grounded in his Christian convictions — could be deemed in violation of city code.

“That’s not equal rights. That’s special rights, and that’s wrong,” Reid said.

If the Plano signatures are certified, the city council must repeal the equal rights ordinance or put it on the ballot in the next general election in May.

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  • Bonnie Pritchett/Southern Baptist Texan