Texas Supreme Court orders City of Houston to change Equal Rights Ordinance ballot language for Nov. election

HOUSTON – With only days before an Aug. 24 deadline, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and City Council were ordered Aug. 19, again, by the Texas Supreme Court to comply with its city charter and draft proper ballot language for the fall election that will decide the fate of a long-contested and controversial ordinance. Parker said that although the court’s decision was politically driven she would comply with the order.

Houston City Council voted Aug. 5 to put the Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO) on the Nov. 3 ballot after a vote to repeal the law failed. That action came only after the high court, in a July ruling, ordered council to perform its duty and comply with the law. After the council’s repeal vote, a heated debate arose over the ballot language when Andy Taylor, the attorney for the coalition opposed to the ordinance, warned the council the ballot would be “dead on arrival” if passed with the proposed wording. Four council members urged Parker to change the language, claiming if she did not the city would again find itself on the losing end of a legal battle with the state’s high court.

Parker refused to acquiesce, and Taylor filed another emergency plea with the high court on Aug. 7 asking them to intervene. And for the second time in less than a month, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the mayor and the Houston City Council.

“Our decision rests not on our views on the ordinance—a political issue the citizens of Houston must decide—but on the clear dictates of the City Charter,” the Texas Supreme Court wrote in its Aug. 19 unanimous decision. “The City Council must comply with its own laws regarding the handling of a referendum petition and any resulting election.”

Those laws dictate council create ballot language asking voters to either vote “For” or “Against” a proposition. Instead council, at the behest of Parker, approved ballot language asking voters if they were for or against “repealing” the ordinance. That language, the court ruled, was not an option and a violation of the council’s ministerial duties.

City of Houston attorneys had argued the Texas Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the ballot language case and the plaintiffs must follow standard appeals processes. But the justices said the imminence of the election places the appeal within a narrow class of cases requiring immediate relief. State law requires all ballots be set by Aug. 24 prior to the Nov. 3 election. Houston ballot language must be set by Aug. 31 for printing and overseas distribution.

The court’s latest decision follows a year-long battle between Parker and the pastors who spearheaded the ERO’s repeal. The ordinance gives protected class status to LGBT individuals. But opponents contend the ordinance goes beyond that, creating special rights for LGBT people, superseding the constitutional right of religious expression.

Especially egregious to the pastors is a provision in the ordinance allowing biological men and women to use public bathrooms and locker rooms of the sex with which they identify.

Still stinging from a June Texas Supreme Court ruling that overturned a 2010 ballot initiative due to improper wording, four council members urged due diligence in drafting ballot language about the ordinance. But what Parker and the remaining council members dismissed as splitting hairs, Taylor warned was the letter of the law in his Aug 4 statement before council.

“Legally, this will be dead on arrival if you do it the way the mayor just explained,” Taylor told council.

His comments were met with open derision by Parker as she told the council, “Our belief is he is incorrect—as he is in many things.”

In addition to being the attorney for the No UnEqual Rights Coalition, a racially and politically diverse group of pastors and civic leaders organized to lead the referendum petition drive, Taylor also represents a group of pastors from the coalition who filed a civil rights lawsuit against Parker, accusing her of voter suppression and intimidation. The lawsuit was filed two days before the council’s ballot language vote.

In defense of the ballot language, Parker said the text is perfectly clear and in keeping with the city charter. The ballot language approved by the city council Aug. 5 stated: “Shall the City of Houston repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530, which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy?”

But council members C.O. Bradford, Dave Martin, Michael Kubosh and Brenda Stardig maintained the November election is not about repealing the ERO and voted against the ballot measure.

“The voters in November cannot vote to repeal anything,” said Bradford, an attorney and one of the most outspoken critics of the ballot language during the Aug. 4 council meeting. “If the ballot language says anything about the voters repealing something, it’s wrong!”

Bradford voted for the ordinance last year but opposed the ballot language because he wanted “the ballot to be right.”

During debate, Parker insisted the language on the ballot was consistent with the petition calling for the repeal of the ERO. Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC), said that reasoning may make sense but was inconsistent with the Supreme Court directive and the city charter.

The charter, not the petition, Martin said, dictates the ballot language, which in its current form is a “purposeful attempt to mislead voters.” Martin’s Aug. 5 allegation continued a tone of acrimony between Parker and those who disagree with her ideologically or managerially.

During Taylor’s Aug. 4 public testimony, Parker took an unprovoked jab at Taylor. Just before calling on a council member to speak, she turned to Taylor and said, “I like the new hair color, by the way.”

Bradford chided Parker for her snide remarks, but Martin made it clear Parker, a lesbian, was operating by a blatant double standard.

Referring to himself, Martin said, “If Dave Martin had criticized a transgendered individual for the color of their hair my name and my picture would be on the first page of the paper and people would be calling for me to resign – immediately!”

Turning to Taylor who stood at the podium for addressing council, he added, “So for that, sir, I apologize. It’s not fair.”

Welch, who attended the Aug. 4 and 5 city council sessions said in his more than 30 years of work as a pastor and advocate for church-lead civic reforms he didn’t “recall seeing a more grotesque display of childish behavior.”

But that, he said, speaks to the “bigger narrative” of the year-long struggle—the spiritual nature of the work at hand.

“The pastors in this coalition representing every walk of life serve, minister to and are for what is best for the people in this great city,” the HAPC wrote in response to the ruling. “We are called to love and also to speak the truth that sets us free from that which would harm or destroy those God created in His image.  We also have and will oppose any words or actions that in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of the individual, even those with whom we disagree.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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