Petition to reverse Houston ordinance garners thousands of signatures
City has until Aug. 4 to validate the signatures that could place the issue before voters this fall
July 5th, 2014 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
HOUSTON—A coalition of pastors delivered a petition with 31,000 validated signatures to Houston’s City Hall Thursday (July 3), to call for a referendum to repeal a non-discrimination ordinance passed last month.
The pastors say the ordinance would infringe on religious liberties and create untenable and potentially dangerous situations for women and children in public restrooms. If the petition signatures are validated by the city, the measure will be put to a vote in November.
Just days before the ordinance’s passage, civic and church leaders who had remained silent on the issue publicly stated their opposition. Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church and former Southern Baptist Convention president; David Fleming, pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church; and Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University joined the coalition of pastors declaring the ordinance, at its core, a threat to religious liberties.
Pastors and members of African American, Vietnamese, Hispanic and Anglo congregations rallied for weeks against the ordinance that passed June 4 and which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They said Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, ignored public objections to the ordinance in pursuit of a personal agenda.
Ordinance opponents argued the ordinance could force business owners to choose between compliance with the law or their religious convictions. They say that in opening public bathrooms to men and women presenting themselves as the opposite gender, potential sexual predators could use the law to take advantage of would-be victims.
“[W]e simply say, ‘Allow the people to vote on this ordinance,’” Max Miller, president of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity, said in a press conference before presenting the signatures to City Secretary Anna Russell. Miller is pastor of Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church.
Miller’s comments drew rebuke from a group gathered in support of the ordinance. Opposing coalitions have formed around this issue, each claiming majority support from Houstonians.
Miller, also representing the No UNequal Rights Coalition, said prior to the ordinance’s passage, polling by the coalition showed 82 percent of Houston registered voters opposed the law. He said 10,000 calls and emails from constituents were received by City Council members demanding they vote against the measure.
The mayor cited wide public support as well, saying during the press conference that a host of civic and business leaders back the measure.
“We will have the same outcome that we had around the council table,” Parker said to cheers from supporters gathered around the podium in the City Hall rotunda.
The Equal Rights Houston Committee was formed to promote the ordinance.
Parker called ordinance opponents “obsessive,” accusing them of fixating on only the accommodations for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, especially their access to public bathrooms and locker rooms.
She said it always has been and will continue to be “illegal for a man to go into a women’s bathroom. Period.”
But according to opponents, the homosexual and transgender accommodations are what spoil the ordinance. They say the other enumerated characteristics (e.g., race, gender and ethnicity) are already protected under city, state and federal laws, making Houston’s ordinance redundant and simply a means of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of established protected characteristics.
Opponents also say the ordinance provides special rights, not civil rights, hence the charge of “unequal rights.”
Parker accused the pastors of lying to promote their campaign.
“Houstonians will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole. I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that,” she said.
Parker also assailed the referendum process, calling city charter requirements a “low bar.” In order to call a referendum, 10 percent of Houston’s registered voters must sign the petition. The No UNequal Rights Coalition needed 17,269 signatures and gathered 50,000. Of those, the coalition validated 31,000.
The city secretary’s office has 30 days to cull through the signatures to determine which are valid. The city council will authorize the results. Parker complained that the process will cost the city money as employees will have to be paid overtime to meet the Aug. 4 deadline.
With enough validated signatures, the City of Houston legal department will craft the wording for the ballot.
“This is going to be another battle,” said local political consultant Ron Jackson who was hired by the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC) to direct the No UNequal Rights Coalition.
Jackson, owner of JPBE Consulting, said he expects the Parker administration to draft language putting the ordinance in the best possible light, expunging any references to its controversial tenets regarding homosexuality and transgender accommodations.
Working frequently on civic and political campaigns with Houston’s African American church leadership, Jackson created ties making him privy to the development of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—called HERO by its supporters—prior to its public dissemination. Knowing it would be of concern to them, he shared the information with the pastors.
Jackson takes the No UNequal Rights Coalition campaign professionally and personally. Along with other ordinance opponents, he accused Parker of dismissing legitimate concerns and using her office to advance a personal agenda in support of the LGBT community in Houston and in the nation. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a powerful international organization lobbying for so-called equal rights ordinances in cities around the country, worked in Houston for the ordinance’s passage. The HRC used the same tactics in San Antonio last year in the creation and passage of an almost identical ordinance.
The law duplicates existing federal, state and local laws but adds sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of 13 other protected citizen classes. It is the equivocation of civil rights based on the immutable characteristics of race and gender with characteristics based on behaviors that opponents, especially African Americans, say they find “patently offensive.”
In a letter to the Greater Houston Partnership, a business consortium that endorsed the measure, HBU’s Sloan wrote: “Ours is not an arbitrarily understood position, nor is it socio-politically neutral; and the proposed ordinance is not ideologically, or theologically, neutral. It attempts to coerce, by legal definition, our adherence to beliefs and practices with which we profoundly disagree.”
Anticipating Parker would press for the ordinance once elected to her third and final term as mayor, HAPC fought to unseat her in the November 2013 election. Despite their efforts, Parker defeated eight opponents, winning 57 percent of the vote.
Dave Welch, HAPC executive director said a variety of dynamics come into play when promoting an individual for public office, including a candidate’s poorly run campaign.
“If they run a terrible campaign, the churches can’t shore that up. But this is an issue, not a person,” Welch said.
An idea is more clearly promoted and public opinion is on their side, he said.
“We are standing on a clearly biblical, defensible position,” Welch said.