Petition falls short in bringing Houston Equal Rights Ordinance to voters

HOUSTON—After two months of post-trial deliberation about the law and signature legibility, District Judge Robert Schaffer ruled April 17 that plaintiffs seeking to reverse the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) fell short in securing the minimum number of petition signatures. Though disappointed with the judgment, plaintiffs and their supporters said their resolve to continue the legal and cultural battle is only strengthened.

Hernan Castano, a member of the racially diverse coalition of pastors opposing the ordinance that gives protected class status based on sexual orientation and gender identity, told his congregation Sunday, “We are going to stand stronger on justice and truth.”

The pastor of Rios de Aceite encouraged believers to pray, to remain active in the cultural debate surrounding the ordinance, and to speak God’s truth in love.

Last May, the Houston City Council passed the Equal Rights Ordinance following contentious public debate. Those opposed to the ordinance—led by the Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC)—gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a referendum to repeal it only to have their efforts thwarted by Mayor Annise Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman. Thousands of signatures were dismissed, and the city declared the petition failed.

The coalition of pastors sued but lost the first legal round when a jury ruled in February the petition failed to meet the signature requirement of 17,269. A post-verdict ruling by Schaffer allowed once-disqualified signatures to be reconsidered as valid. Two months later, after back-and-forth disparate briefs were filed by both parties, Schaffer ruled the plaintiffs fell 585 signatures short. The petition failed, and the ordinance, which had not been implemented during the referendum effort and trial, would now be in force.

“We have a HERO!” Parker wrote on her Twitter feed. “We passed a good ordinance. We were right to reject repeal petition; jury agreed with us, judge agreed with us!”

During the public debate over the ordinance Parker, a lesbian, said its passage was personal to her and she would not allow anyone to vote on her civil rights. Schaffer’s ruling ended the opponents’ effort to put the ordinance to a city-wide vote in November. And Parker, in a brief statement on the city’s website urged against an appeal adding, “Now all Houstonians have access to the same protections.”

Also included in the protected characteristics are sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy. Federal law affords protections based on race, sex and disability, making the Houston ordinance redundant in those areas.

In response to the verdict, newly appointed city attorney Donna Edmundson mischaracterized the coalition’s efforts as “pro-discrimination.” On the city’s website she stated, “This is a great victory in the courts and a great day for civil rights in Houston, Texas. I am gratified that the judge signed a final judgment rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims and confirming that their pro-discrimination referendum petition failed.”

But Castano, interviewed throughout the trial by Spanish-language television stations Telemundo and Univision, said, “The people’s right to vote has been ignored and rejected. The mayor has been trying to force her agenda on the people at all costs.”

As of Tuesday, plaintiffs had not publicly stated their appellate plan, but HAPC Executive Director Dave Welch told the TEXAN, “We will appeal, and we will fight for justice, what is right before God, and for the rule of law all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.”

Once filed, the appeal would be heard by the 1st or 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston.

Andy Taylor, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, stated repeatedly throughout the trial and post-verdict deliberations that the appellate court typically weighs its judgments more favorably on the side of voters’ rights, something Taylor said the defense and Schaffer obfuscated.

“I think Schaffer made our job on appeal easier,” Taylor said Friday following the judgment.

Taylor criticized the judge for accepting the defense argument requiring all petition circulator signatures be legible. In doing so, he opened the door for the defense to broaden its scope of “illegible” signatories; if the circulator’s signature at the bottom of a page was illegible, then all voter signatures collected on that page were invalidated.

Taylor said the defense’s number of invalid signatures tossed out on that point more than tripled from 2,500 at the end of the trial to 8,500 in its final judgment statement.

“So that’s what the case ended up turning on,” Taylor said.

The legibility argument sets a “dangerous” precedent, making the judge the sole arbiter of legibility and, ultimately, which voter signatures will be counted on the petition. Taylor argued the dismissal of voter signatures based on circulator penmanship establishes a de facto challenge to an individual’s right to vote.

Taylor said he was confident thousands of voter signatures will be reinstated on the petition by the Texas Court of Appeals. But the loser at that level could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, where plaintiffs already filed a Writ of Mandamus last August seeking an expedited ruling in the case.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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