Month: February 2015

Petition fails in effort to repeal pro-LGBT Plano city ordinance

PLANO—A petition drive seeking to repeal a controversial pro-LGBT Plano city ordinance has failed dramatically due to its noncompliance with municipal and state codes. City officials said irregularities in the document prohibited City Secretary Lisa Henderson from even beginning a count of voter signatures.

Petition organizers balked at the dismissal but would not say if they intend to press the issue in court or seek repeal by other means.

After only one public hearing on the proposed Equal Rights ordinance, which extends protected characteristic status to people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, Plano City Council passed the Equal Rights Ordinance last December. A coalition of pastors and area legislators immediately began the referendum process and, within 30 days, turned in a 7,000-signature petition calling for the ordinance’s repeal.

In a Feb. 20 press release, Steve Stoler, Plano director of media relations, said the petition failed to meet three criteria for compliance and coalition leadership failed to take corrective measures when warned of the problems in a Dec. 30 email, three weeks prior to the petition’s deadline.

“The city made a good faith attempt to avoid dispute and facilitate accuracy,” Stoler stated. According to the city, the petition failed to accurately cite the role of the Equal Rights ordinance, attach a copy of the ordinance being challenged, and indicate the county of residence for each signer.

But coalition members—who received support from Austin and Houston advocates—called the dismissal a blatant disregard of the will of the people.

“While we are shocked that the city has so little regard for its citizens, we remain committed to advancing religious liberty and challenging this ordinance that clearly violates laws protecting religious freedom,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy organization in Plano.

Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of Texas Values Action, which assisted in the petition drive, would not say if the coalition will continue to press for repeal. Frustrated by the city’s actions, he said the “average citizen” should not be blamed for document’s shortcomings.

“At the end of the day they did the best they could,” he said.

Church in trouble because of confusion between law and grace, Tchividjian says

EULESS—Christians must avoid the theological misstep of confusing God’s law and God’s gospel, Tullian Tchividjian told attendees to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s 2015 Empower Conference at First Baptist Euless Feb. 24.

Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said law and gospel are both essential aspects of the Christian walk but have become muddled together in sermons and therefore in the lives of Christians. Preaching from Romans 7, he said that while he hates to sound alarmist, he believes the church is in trouble because of this confusion.

“I’m convinced the church is in trouble,” Tchividjian said, “and the reason the church is in trouble is because pulpits are in trouble, and the reason pulpits are in trouble is because preachers fail to distinguish … between God’s law and God’s gospel.”

Tchividjian said God’s Word comes in two forms: demands (law) and deliverance (gospel). Both are important and necessary, but they have vastly different roles. He said a focus on law over grace leads Christians to believe that somehow, if they try really hard, they can attain the level of sanctification and holiness that pleases God by following his laws and commands. The problem with this mindset, he said, is that since God’s standard is perfection, no one can rise to that level of excellence. The role of the law is to show people just how badly they need grace, highlighting the unending ways they fall short of God’s expectations.

“The focus and the foundation of the Christian faith is not living for God,” Tchividjian said. “The focus of the Christian faith is that God in Christ gloriously lived for us. That foundation produces fruit, but the root of the Christian faith is not living for God. It’s the fact that God in Christ is living for us.

“Failure to distinguish between law and gospel always means the abandonment of the gospel because the law gets softened into helpful tips for practical living, while the gospel gets hardened into a set of demands that we have to live out.”

Tchividjian said sermons should point out the severity of man’s sinfulness, which shows people “that they are a lot worse than they think they are.” Then, he said, sermons should explain the infinite, unimaginable reality of God’s grace.

God’s law, Tchividjian said, is for those that think they are good. His grace is for those that know they are bad. Both are equally important, he emphasized. But also crucial is the church’s commitment to allow both law and grace to have their own distinct jobs and roles in the life of Christians.

“This is a game changer, in my opinion,” he said.

Activist Judges’ defy Texas law to recognize same-sex marriage, TX Supreme Court issues stay

AUSTIN—The Texas Supreme Court issued a stay halting the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Feb. 20, less than 24 hours after a Travis County Clerk issued a license to a lesbian couple in Austin.

As far as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is concerned, the marriage license issued to the couple Feb. 19 is null and void. However, although the court issued the stay, it did not immediately rule to void the license.

Theresa Farfan, deputy press secretary for the attorney general, told the TEXAN Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir issued the marriage license for Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant of Austin in violation of Texas law and statutes. Those violations alone void the license, but Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court for an expedited ruling on the case. Additionally he asked the high court to reaffirm the existing stay on the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and hold rogue judges to account.

Texas’ marriage law is presently under review by the U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit.

In two unrelated cases last week, Travis County judges ruled in favor of lesbian appellants asking for relief from the Texas marriage restrictions. On Tuesday, Feb. 17, a probate judge declared the Texas marriage law unconstitutional. Two days later Judge David Wahlberg of the 167th District Court in Travis County delivered a similar ruling and issued a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law so Goodfriend and Bryant could marry.

Wahlberg ordered county clerk DeBeauvoir to ignore Texas’ “unconstitutional” law prohibiting same-sex marriage and to immediately issue the marriage license, waiving the requisite 72-hour waiting period. According to Austin news reports DeBeauvoir gladly accommodated the court order.

In his Feb. 19 order, Wahlberg wrote, “The Court finds that unless the Court immediately issues a Temporary Restraining Order, the unconstitutional denial of a marriage license to Plaintiffs will cause immediate and irreparable damage to Plaintiffs, based solely on their status as a same-sex couple.”

Paxton said both judges acted without authority in unilaterally declaring the Texas definition of marriage unconstitutional. Additionally, Texas statute requires judges contesting the constitutionality of a law notify the Attorney General’s office and allow for a response. The judges did neither.

Those violations rendered the marriage license void at its issuance despite the couple’s very public nuptial ceremony in front of the Travis County Clerk’s office located on a busy Austin thoroughfare. Paxton also reminded all state judges the Texas marriage law is still in force even as it is being challenged in appellate courts.

“The law of Texas has not changed, and will not change due to the whims of any individual judge or county clerk operating on their own capacity anywhere in Texas,” Paxton said in a Feb. 19 statement. “Activist judges don’t change Texas law, and we will continue to aggressively defend the laws of our state and will ensure that any licenses issued contrary to law are invalid.”

In his request to the Texas Supreme Court Paxton called the judges’ actions “an abuse of discretion” and called on the high court to “declare void any invalid marriage licenses issued in reliance on the trial court’s improper order.”

Giving even as we have received

Here we have Atheists, Deists, Universalists, and men of every sect, but all agree in this, that they are fighting against God and His cause; and they are preparing for a heavy contest, being armed with much information on all subjects. We need men of understanding, of deep research, of giant intellect, clothed with the spirit of the gospel as a garment, that they may confound all our opposers, disseminate light, establish the church, and be the means of pulling down the strongholds of Satan and building up the Kingdom of God. Dear brothers, that this great need and desirable object may be accomplished, we ask your aid and assistance. 

This quote is from a letter dated 1837, early in the brief life of the Texas republic, and signed by Z.N. Morrell, A. Buffington, and J.R. Jenkins on behalf of Baptists in Texas. Copies were sent to the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions (Texas being a foreign country) and the American Baptist Home Mission Society (… barely a foreign country); and one was published by the Georgia Christian Index. In response, the Home Mission Society sent two men, James Huckins and William Tryon, to serve as itinerant missionaries. These men founded significant churches like Houston’s First Baptist, helped found Baylor University and generally strengthened the struggling efforts of Baptists in Texas in the years before even the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. They, these emissaries from our East Coast brothers, made a difference in Texas that indirectly touched churches around the U.S. and even across the world. Texas Southern Baptists were recipients of generosity long before we became a powerhouse or any other kind dwelling beyond a tent. 

Our brethren in other corners of the nation could write nearly the same letter today. In fact, we could argue that the needs in some corners of the United States are more urgent than in 1837 Texas. In many modern cities, a smaller percentage of the population has heard the gospel than was likely the case in 19th century America. The resistance of Atheists, Deists and the like cited in the letter has been amplified by our wholeheartedly materialist culture that honors only those who sit in the seat of scoffers. If we agree with the “great need and desirable object” of establishing churches and pulling down the strongholds of Satan, we are going to need to respond mercifully to the call of our brothers in the west, north and northeast of the U.S, as well as those in the borderlands and inner cities of Texas. 

In a relative sense, our choice is similar to that of East Coast Baptists in 1837. We, like they were, are in a settled place rich in religious resources. Living here in Dallas-Fort Worth, I can scarcely remember the days of being excited to travel to a city that had a Baptist Book Store (now known as LifeWay Christian Stores), but that was true when I served in Indiana. In that region, I often preached in churches that had no trained music leader or pianist. The very fact that I preached more in many months in the Midwest than I do in Texas during the course of a year indicates the relative paucity of preachers available in other parts of our nation. The blessings available to our Texas churches are not to be the cause of guilt, but rather of gratitude. We must never forget that work in our state was once a missions cause and that we had those who sponsored our work having never seen our land. We must love, better than we do, people and places beyond our sight.

So what does gratitude look like? In our day, as in all days, it should look like generosity. Add to generosity a more selfless vision, advocacy for that vision and to advocacy, action. Eastern Baptists’ outreach to Texas involved all those things. They sent some of their best men, provided some money for their support and advocated to the detriment of local ministry for the missionary effort. Sometimes that last bit—advocacy—is undervalued. Notice the efforts, from VBS to recruiting preschool workers, that are most likely to be successful. Often those successes are undergirded by the passionate support of church leaders, particularly the pastor. That’s the power of advocacy, and it takes attention away from other good causes. Without it, our support of costly missionary efforts is more apparent than actual. 

Do you support church planting? Lead your church to help start a church. Do you support missions in U.S. locations you’ve never heard of? Promote the Annie Armstrong offering for North American missions this year, perhaps for the first time ever. Consider a mission trip to the Texas borderlands or Utah-Idaho with a few of your church members this year. 

I pray God will give you the joy of seeing your generosity bear fruit as abundantly as did those gifts from our East Coast 180 years ago. 

Go to sbtexas.com/mobilization for SBTC partnership and borderlands opportunities. 

Go to anniearmstrong.com for information on the 2015 offering for North American missions.

The antidote for bridging America’s racial divide

Just when we thought our common enemy of yesterday was slowly fading away, its evil and divisive spirit has come back to open up old wounds and haunt our hills of today. The greatest threat against America today is not ISIS or weapons of mass destruction, but in my humble opinion, the greatest threat against America is the weapon of massive racism. There is no subject that can be more troublesome, emotionally explosive and divisive than a discussion about race in America. 

Just reflect back on recent events with Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner and the police department in New York City; and Tamir Rice and the police officer in Cleveland, Ohio. The prophetic words of Billy Graham, still ring true today, “Racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today.”

The awareness of racial division in America has been communicated by many observers in our society. Michael Emerson, in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, said, “For race is intimately tied to the American experience.” Other nations have also observed the racial problems in our nation. The astute Swedish scholar and researcher, Gunnar Myrdal, described America’s racial problem as, “an American dilemma.”

However, the great racial divide is not a “skin color” problem but a “sin” problem. Racism and hatred are blatant denials of the solidarity that we have in Christ. In Christ there is no partiality based upon one’s race or status.

Racism scars the soul because it is an ugly, evil attitude that often leads to the commission of ugly, evil acts. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.” The deadly poison of racism has infected this country and its citizens far too long. Its epidemic consequences have touched the entire country. The question yet lingers, what is the antidote for the racial divide in our nation? The antidote is the total reliance upon the infallible Word of God to lead and guide us toward ethical and moral behavior, and to live out a cross-shaped life. 

One of the issues of our crumbling culture is that we refer to, or rely on, other books and human wisdom before we seek the Word of God as an antidote for our crisis. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul declares, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

Paul presents a basis for reconciliation that overshadows black theology and white theology because it is God’s theology. The infallible Word of God, when interpreted correctly, brings us together instead of dividing us, as 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 expounds. Paul helps us to live out a cross-shaped life, in our own vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with others. Let us not be found on the wrong side of history by having a vertical relationship with God and not having a loving horizontal relationship with others.

If all ethnic groups in America would try harder to become ambassadors for racial reconciliation, America could experience a great awakening of spiritual racial harmony. As ambassadors for racial reconciliation, Christians must admit, submit and commit. Christians must first admit that sinful acts have scared one another. We must submit to the Word of God and allow it to be a blueprint to heal our racial divide. Michael Battle said, “Genuine reconciliation can only come if people, both black and white, commit to a view of their sisters and brothers of different contexts, seeing all people created in the image of God and of infinite values to him.”

Christians must also commit to developing stronger relationships with others who are of another race. J. Deotis Roberts wrote, “Any meaningful relationship between blacks and whites at this time will need to involve a give and take relationship of mutual cultural enrichment.” What I advocate as an ambassador of Christ, is a Christian theological approach to race relations that will lead us beyond hypocritical tokenism to liberation and genuine acts of reconciliation between equals.

God’s mission through the local church

There are three institutions on earth established by God: the home, government and the local church. The home is under attack as never before in American culture. Even the definition is being debated. The American experiment with a democratic republic is unique. Sadly, the government has become intrusive and ineffective in so many ways. Some say the church is also going down. I have news for the critics of the church. The church is going up, and it may be soon.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to hear Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, bring biblical insights in a retreat setting. He is articulate, brilliant and convictional. He has lead MBTS to adopt the vision “For the Church.” His focus on serving the local church sets the correct course for the school.

The new president of the International Mission Board, David Platt, has stated that local churches are the true senders of missionaries. Since the inception of the Southern Baptist Convention we have used a deployment system involving a board, though the missionary is called, discipled and nurtured in the local church. Churches also commission and stay in contact with their missionaries. Southern Baptist churches have chosen to work together through a sending board in order to provide the best possible support for the missionary, but it all starts with the church.

I’m in a church every week, but I must confess that I don’t attend my own church as often as I’d like. I do send my tithe and offerings through my local church. I pray for my pastor regularly. I support him and the work of the gospel through my church. Although I am not as involved in my own local church, I get to experience ministry in scores of churches every year. I am grateful that God allows me to preach in and visit other churches as my ministry. God is at work in the local church. What God is going to do, he will do it through churches.

The home was established before the church. Worship, discipleship and evangelism must be in the home. The ministries of a church can have a significant role in building stronger homes, but it is essentially strong homes that make strong churches.

Churches on mission with the gospel will influence the public square, including the government. Believers must live out their convictions in order to make our society better. This spiritual salt and light will come from the local church.

Jimmy Pritchard, president of the SBTC, has called upon us to pray for a spiritual renewal in our churches and a spiritual awakening among the lost. When the church experiences the presence of God, people who need Jesus will hear the good news. 

We owe our love and devotion to Jesus. Jesus loved the church and gave his life for her. The church is the bride of Christ. When we love Jesus, we will love the church. 

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention exists to assist churches in carrying out the Great Commission. The SBTC is a collection of churches that have pooled their resources to make a greater impact on the world with the gospel. We exist and do these things for Jesus, and For the Church!

Utah-Idaho partnership bears fruit along Wasatch Front

Nestled between the Wasatch mountains on the east and the Oquirrh range on the west, bordered by the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake at north and south, bisected by the Jordan River, lies the Wasatch Front, a narrow strip of land over 100 miles long in north-central Utah.

The Wasatch Front contains the state’s major metropolitan areas—Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden—and is home to 2.8 million people, more than 80 percent of the population of Utah, 98 percent of whom do not know Jesus as savior.

NAMB Send Salt Lake missionary Travis Kerns and Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention (UISBC) Executive Director Rob Lee are determined to see the latter statistic changed.

Along the Wasatch Front, more than 50 Southern Baptist churches preach the gospel to predominately Mormon or unchurched populations. Some 15 Utah church plants are presently funded through the UISBC and NAMB’s Send Salt Lake initiative, with church planting interns and apprentices in training to
begin more. 

“We are trying to ramp up the number of church plants,” Lee told the TEXAN. “The SBTC has supported this ministry in Utah-Idaho. Because of their missions giving, we are able to do more work here than we could otherwise do.”

Utah-Idaho is one of three current partnerships SBTC has with the North American Mission Board. Several Wasatch Front church plants have SBTC ties.

“A big thank you goes to the SBTC for sending some of their best to plant churches,” Lee noted.

Lee’s work as executive director-treasurer of the UISBC assists the 168 SBC churches and entities in a territory just south of the Canadian border all the way down to northern Arizona. Vision 2020, the UISBC state strategy, has set the goal of establishing 300 SBC churches and reaching one percent of the region’s population by 2020.

“We have a long way to go,” Lee acknowledged. 

Kerns arrived in the Salt Lake area in July 2013. The self-professed “Mormon nerd” was a professor of Christian worldview and apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., when NAMB President Kevin Ezell asked him to go to Salt Lake City as part of the Send City initiative.

“It was hard for us to be comfortable in Louisville, knowing that in Utah 54 people die every day, and 53 of those die lost,” Kerns explained. “It’s a hard place to do ministry, the most beautiful ‘ugly’ place we have ever lived. And we love it.”

Kerns describes his work as recruiting “planters and partners” and is quick to credit the SBTC’s involvement in securing both, noting his positive relationship with SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards.

“The SBTC has partnered with the UISBC for three years, sending planters, funds and mission teams,” Kerns said. “It’s been great to be able to call the SBTC when we need help. When we see Jim [Richards] and staff at conventions, they make us feel welcome, like part of the family.” 

Among the SBTC churches supporting Utah church plants are StoneWater Church in Granbury, First Baptist Church in Keller, Redeemer Church in Fort Worth, Denman Avenue Baptist Church in Lufkin, Grace Community Church in Glen Rose and First Baptist Church in Petrolia.

“FBC Keller has been extremely supportive of Desert Ridge Baptist Church in St. George,” Lee said. Desert Ridge, in southwestern Utah, is in a heavily LDS retirement area 110 miles from Las Vegas. “Brigham Young sent settlers there and wintered there.”

Desert Ridge has experienced what Lee calls “slow and steady growth,” with pastor Michael Waldrop at the helm. 

The fastest growing church plant in the history of the UISBC is Lifestone in Herriman, Utah, sponsored by Granbury’s StoneWater, Lee noted. Lifestone, founded in 2013, has quickly grown to nearly 100 members. 

Morgan Grace Fellowship, a church plant supported by Denman Avenue Baptist in Lufkin, is the only non-Mormon church in 97 percent LDS Morgan County. The pastor, Jeff Hurlbut, like many church planters, is bi-vocational, working in the local school district while his wife is a planner for the city of Morgan. 

Community involvement remains a key for SBC church planters whose evangelicalism is at odds with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“There’s no way to avoid the isolation except to get into the community and go to events. Put your kids in basketball or soccer leagues and get to know the people so they know you are not the weirdo next door, even though you are not into Mormonism,” Kerns advised. “Once Mormons get to know you as a human being, they will come around. It just takes time.”

The children of church planters are sometimes ostracized, especially in middle and high school, Kerns said, making Utah “a tough place to live.”

The region is changing in a continually expanding economy. Forbes magazine rated Utah as the “Best State for Business” in 2014, and the strong economy is attracting outsiders, noted Ben Helton, Lifestone pastor.  

With the influx of new residents, Mormonism is slowly losing its grip in Utah’s largest cities, with more than a quarter of the population in the Wasatch Front identifying as religiously unaffiliated 

“Salt Lake City proper is not even 50 percent Mormon now,” Lee said.

Lee, who has been in Utah since 1987, noted that Mormonism remains strong in rural areas even outside Utah. “Some places in Idaho are even more Mormon than Utah,”
Lee added. 

“Utah Lake is fresh water. The Great Salt Lake has salt water. The Jordan River connects them,” Lee mused. In a region rife with biblical names and relatively little biblical knowledge, the area Mormons historically call Zion is poised for change. 

SBC church planters are ready to help that change include a movement to Christ. 

Obamacare causes Longview church to close day care

LONGVIEW (TEXAN)—A Longview church in, Texas, is closing the day care center it has operated for more than 30 years in response to requirements imposed by the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Mobberly Baptist Church said in a statement on its website, Feb. 12, that closing the day care “comes with much sorrow” and follows months of Mobberly staff “praying, researching and discussing the issue.”

Under the health care law, employers that meet a certain employee count threshold must provide full-time workers with comprehensive health insurance. Although the number of full-time Mobberly Child Development Center workers falls below the threshold, the day care is part of the church and the federal government includes church staff and day care workers when accounting for the total number of employees.

So the day care, which serves newborns through age 5, will close March 13.

Church leaders spent considerable time praying and evaluating options. In order to comply with the new regulations and keep the day care open, leaders determined there were four main options.

The Child Development Center could increase tuition to cover the cost of additional insurance, but they realized the increase would mean most of the families that currently send children to the center would no longer be able to afford the service. Also, Mobblery’s day care would not remain comparably priced to local day care centers that do not exceed the ACA threshold.

Another option was to separate the Child Development Center from the church as its own corporation in order to reduce the total number of employees. The church consulted two nonprofit attorneys, according to the statement, who advised against that option for several reasons, including a loss of property tax exemption, loss of control and the possibility of the Internal Revenue Service ignoring the restructuring.

A third option, the church said, was to reduce the number of teachers and classrooms at the day care, but teacher/student ratios are subject to state regulations, and “the past historical quality of the CDC was built around the teacher/student ratios used.”

The fourth option cited by leaders was to reduce the number of full-time Child Development Center teachers.

“Utilizing primarily part-time teachers has been tried by CDC leadership in the past and has led to instability and higher staff turnover,” Mobberly’s statement said. “We are aware of one other large day care operation that attempted to utilize only part-time teachers recently, and they have now changed their philosophy and hired multiple full-time teachers.”

Gregg Zackary, Mobberly’s senior associate pastor, told the TEXAN the Child Development Center operates under its own budget and its own leadership.

“The church does have a Child Development Center committee that oversees it in terms of big picture, and because of that link we do have some control,” Zackary said. “But it has its own director; it pays its own salaries; it pays most of its expenses.”

Workers at the center care for about 120 full-time students and about 40 after-school students.

The church provides space for the day care and does not charge for utilities or cleaning, Zackary said, “But in terms of their supplies and their workers and any insurance, it operates on its own budget.”

Zackary said his survey of other day care centers in Longview led him to believe Mobberly is not unique to not provide health insurance for employees. However, those centers are not affected because they do not exceed the total employee threshold.

The decision to close the day care has caused displeasure among parents who have placed children there.

“They’ve expressed their sadness because their kids got excellent care,” Zackary said, “and they’re disappointed that the Child Development Center has to close.”

Most families already have been able to find alternative care for their children, Zackary said.

The closure also has affected the center’s workers, including some who have served there for 20 years or more.

“We’re very saddened that they’re impacted,” Zackary said. “We have been able to work through the Child Development Center’s budget to provide severance for those workers based on their tenure and their pay rate to help ease the transition for them as they look for new jobs.”

Many of the workers already have been hired at other centers, Zackary said.

Though Mobberly Baptist is losing its influence on countless young lives, Zackary said the main mission of the church—to lead people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ—has not changed.

“This doesn’t impede us from continuing to fulfill our mission in many different ways,” he said. “Our goal is to continue the mission the Lord has given his church.”

Houston jury delivers verdict on equal rights ordinance lawsuit; judge”s ruling forthcoming

HOUSTON—In a verdict Feb. 13, a Houston jury ruled 10-2 in the lawsuit against the city and administrators for their summary dismissal of a petition brought by a coalition of pastors and civic leaders opposed to the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance. The jury found nearly 2,500 forgeries among the 54,000 voter signatures but dismissed the city’s allegations of fraud.

No definitive winner was revealed by the verdict, which will not be finalized until 152nd District Court Judge Robert Schaffer issues his judgment. Schaffer, who was out of town and did not preside over the reading of the verdict, called a hearing in the case of Woodfill v Parker for 9 a.m. Feb. 19. Attorneys for both parties did not know if the judge would rule on the case at that time.

Following the verdict lead defense attorney Geoffrey Harrison was quick to claim the verdict as a win for the defense and Mayor Annise Parker, who championed the ordinance as a “personal” issue. Defendants in the lawsuit are Parker, former Houston City Attorney David Feldman, City Secretary Anna Russell and the City of Houston.

“If the court’s ruling follows the jury’s verdict this will be a complete and total vindication for the city,” Harrison told reporters following the verdict. “And the petition, which we declared failed back in August, will indeed be found, judicially, to have failed as well.”

But Andy Taylor, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said once Schaffer—and subsequent appellate courts—apply the law and legal precedent, any still-disqualified voter signatures could be ruled valid, breathing new life into the referendum.

“We are very excited the jury vindicated us and found no fraud,” Taylor said, following Harrison’s remarks. “This jury was asked by this mayor to indict these hardworking citizens—these volunteer circulators—on the basis that they committed fraud. The jury found 13 out of 13 times no fraud was committed.”

Lead attorneys indicated the case will be appealed when Schaffer’s ruling finalizes the jury’s work. The case would then go to the First or Fourteenth District Court of Appeals in Houston. Taylor said he will ask the court for an expedited process in order to get the referendum on the November ballot should his clients prevail in court.

Opening arguments and testimony for Woodfill v Parker began Jan. 27 and lasted seven days, with deliberations lasting an additional five days. Juror Patsy Jenkins said the panel had a good working relationship and established criteria for answering each of the six questions with the 154 subsets. Their careful review produced a wide range of findings, which left observers unable to discern their significance at first glance.

Although charged with answering questions related to fraud, forgery, circulator identity and circulator oath validation requirements, jurors were not asked to render judgment on the ramifications of the city’s actions.

“We felt the people were not heard … the true and genuine were not heard,” Jenkins said. Thousands of registered Houston voters signed the petition in anticipation of a November 2014 vote on the ordinance, but their signatures were dismissed for a host or reasons including the work of some unscrupulous circulators.

Jurors heard arguments over the definitions of “signature” and “subscribe” as they related to the city’s dismissal of all but 3,905 of the 54,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance passed last May, which included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classifications. Those taking the witness stand included Feldman, Parker, pastors, church employees and petition circulators. Plaintiffs argued the city used a subjective standard for dismissing voter signatures while defense attorneys charged the petition was riddled with fraud and forgeries and, ultimately, did not comply with city code.

The lawsuit’s three plaintiffs included Jared Woodfill, former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, and F.M. Williams and Max Miller, African-American pastors and community leaders. They represented the racially and politically diverse coalition of church and civic leaders who fought for almost a year to halt the passage and implementation of the Equal Rights Ordinance.

The plaintiffs’ first witness, Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, testified for more than five hours, mostly on cross examination by Harrison, one of more than a dozen private and municipal attorney’s providing the defense.

Welch testified that he drafted the referendum petition page drawing the format from an example given on a website linked to the official City of Houston website. But in doing so he eliminated what appeared to be an errant line in the form.

That line, defense said, was essential to the form’s compliance with the Houston City Charter. Without it there was no place for petition circulators to sign the oath, or affidavit, at the bottom of the page. No signature; no oath; no valid petition pages, they argued.

But Taylor said the online affidavit did have a place for the circulator to write their names. And since the oaths were witnessed and validated by notary publics—a representative of the State of Texas—the circulators’ signatures should be accepted as presented on the form.

Initial dismissal of the voter signatures in August was based on illegibility, printing of circulator signatures versus cursive, and the identity of the circulators, among other issues. The dismissal gave petition organizers—calling themselves the No UNequal Rights Coalition—only 15,249 of the 17,269 necessary signatures to force a second vote on the ordinance by city council.

The coalition sued, and the signature line became the main point of contention for the defense during the course of the investigation and trial. By Jan. 26, the day of jury selection, the number of valid signatures had shrunk to 3,905.

The jury, with the exception of Jenkins and a second juror, ruled in the city’s favor when analyzing the petition pages of 98 circulators. They blamed Welch, who created the form, for not checking other resources to ensure the accuracy of the document. But they also faulted the city for its publication of a petition form that lacked a definitive signature line.

Throughout the trial Taylor claimed Parker and Feldman (who resigned in December) spent more time and resources trying to disqualify voter signatures than seeking signature confirmation. African-American plaintiffs and their supporters, many of whom worked in the civil rights movement, claimed the situation seemed all too familiar. The rights of the voters had been quashed.

But Harrison repeatedly said the issue was about the rule of law and compliance with the Houston City Charter.

“Thousands of signatures on this petition are not just highly suspect but clearly not genuine and show evidence of forgery and fraud,” Harrison said.

Parker, whom the plaintiffs’ attorney called as an “adverse witness.” concurred and challenged Taylor’s analysis of the signatures.

“There are lots of different ways to analyze the petition,” Parker said from the stand Feb. 2. But, she continued, “it doesn’t matter if you miss [the goal] by 2,000 signatures or two. The law is the law.”

“But if someone doesn’t get counted,” Taylor countered,”it might matter to them—a lot.”

When plaintiffs rested their case later that day, the defense called former city attorney Feldman as their first witness. He told the jury he did not initially press the issue of the petition format that would eventually nullify the vast majority of voter signatures because the referendum had failed. It wasn’t until the lawsuit was filed that city attorneys began scrutinizing the affidavit portion of the form with its missing signature line.

“[The referendum process] was designed to keep people from signing as someone they weren’t,” Feldman said in defending his actions.

Seeking to illustrate their allegations of forgery and fraud the defense called a handwriting expert, Janet Masson, to cull through the petition pages. Her review revealed about 2,355 “irregularities” throughout the 5,199 pages of signatures. The jury counted those “irregularities” among the forgeries.

But Taylor said the city’s validation standard was inconsistent throughout the investigation and, therefore, unjust. He held the defense to the city’s December analysis of signatures documented as a “final” count. According to that analysis there were 15,972 valid signatures, just 1,297 shy of the requisite number for the referendum.

But the defense consistently argued the “final” count had a footnote stating more pages could be invalidated.

Taylor accused the city of moving the goals, making compliance with the rules impossible. He told jurors they were the plaintiffs’ only recourse in the fight against city hall.

He illustrated the point during closing arguments by tossing file after file of the thousands of invalidated signature pages onto the floor. With each bundle of pages, Taylor said, “You don’t count. You don’t count. They don’t count.”

“These aren’t signatures,” he told the jurors. “These are people trying to validate their right to petition the government.”