Called by the plaintiffs’ attorney as a hostile witness, Mayor Annise Parker gave short, sometimes curt, answers during three hours of questioning Monday in the trial over an LGBT equal rights ordinance she championed.
Since the first day of the trial, a small group of plaintiffs’ supporters—members of a racially diverse coalition of pastors and civic leaders—have attended the proceedings, sitting in the small 50-person gallery. But Parker’s appearance brought the coalition out in force. About 25 people, mostly Houston pastors, filled the seating behind the plaintiffs and into the area behind the defense desks. They sat in silent objection to the mayor’s equation of race with sexual orientation and gender identity and the city’s attempt to suppress a vote on the controversial ordinance.
“I have no idea why they called me to the stand,” Parker said after she left the courthouse. “They didn’t question me about my specific role in this whole process. They made a lot of public allegations. They spent a lot of time asking me to second guess the legal department.”
Parker defended city attorney David Feldman’s review and subsequent dismissal of tens of thousands of voter signatures on the petition to put the ordinance on last November’s ballot. She repeated the city’s argument that the petition form was flawed, invalidating many signatures. The validity of the remaining signatures is an ongoing a point of contention crucial for the plaintiffs as they seek to convince the jury to reverse enough signature disqualifications to breathe life back into the referendum.
The number of valid signatures cited by the defense—the City of Houston, Parker, Feldman, and City Secretary Anna Russell—keeps dwindling as the trial progresses. As of Monday, the number fell to 3,905, down from 5,000 last week when the trial began. The city maintains the affidavit portion of the petition page is not valid and, by association, neither are the voter signatures. The coalition opposing the ordinance submitted almost 54,000 signatures after a 30-day petition drive.
“What brought us to this point is that the petitioners, for God only knows what reason, didn’t accurately reprint the form that the charter lays out,” Parker said in a press conference following her testimony.
But plaintiffs’ attorney Andy Taylor lay blame on the city for linking key municipal information, such as the Houston City Charter and petition requirements, to an external website the city “would not vouch for.” Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, followed the city’s link to the website, Municode, when drafting the petition page.
Welch omitted a very short line in the sworn affidavit portion of the page. He testified last week the line appeared superfluous because of its length and the absence of any information indicating its purpose.
When Taylor asked why the city had not edited the Municode website to clearly illustrate the city’s requirements, Parker deflected blame by noting Municode is a private company and as such its content does not belong to the city.
In her testimony and at the press conference, Parker reiterated the defense allegation of illegal activity among the petition organizers.
“I want to be clear. There was fraud. There was forgery. There were lots and lots of mistakes,” Parker told the media. Only four reporters attended the unpublicized press conference.
Parker repeatedly noted petition organizers drew a line through signatures on the petition that could not be verified as registered Houston voters. Coalition volunteers testified the line did not expunge the signature from the petition—by law only the signer can do that—but was meant as an indication to the city secretary’s office that the signature had not been pre-verified by volunteers.
“This is not about what is fair or not fair,” Parker said. “This is about, strictly, the law. And whether we followed the law.”
But pastors, especially older African-American pastors who rallied in the days of the Civil Rights Movement see something more nefarious in the city’s actions.
Willie Davis, a leader in the coalition effort and pastor of MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church, said the media has been silent in criticizing Parker—“a poster-person for the Democrats”—regarding what many in the coalition characterize as voter suppression.
“You have a Democrat mayor … denying black people the right of their voice to vote,” he said. “That’s what she’s doing.”
When I asked her to address the equivocation of race with sexual orientation and gender identity, Parker repeated objections she voiced during the public hearings over the ordinance last May. She declared passage of the Equal Rights Ordinance was deeply personal to her. Parker, a lesbian, went to California last year to marry her long-time partner. She called the pastors’ objections to same-sex marriage “straw man” arguments.
“What the plaintiffs fail to acknowledge, and they do it deliberately, is that we didn’t take an existing ordinance and shoehorn sexual orientation and gender identity in it,” she said. “We wrote a from scratch comprehensive ordinance that covers a range of protected classes. Their focus is we want to take sexual orientation and gender identity out because we want the ability—and they said this overtly and multiple times in the council chambers—we want the ability to discriminate particularly on the basis of gender identity. Well, again, I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
But when asked how the ordinance could impact the religious liberty of individuals and businesses, as is happening around the country, Parker bristled.
“I’m not talking about some of these ordinances, I’m talking about the city of Houston’s ordinance and it is a first time, stand-alone ordinance that applies to everyone. To the best of my knowledge, it has not created any legal issues around religious organizations because the City of Houston’s ordinance exempts religious organizations.”
But the ordinance won’t take effect until the legal proceedings are over, so it’s as yet untested. And religious liberty experts say the exemptions are so narrow they are practically worthless. Critics fear the ordinance will be used to force churches and Christian businesses to allow men to use women’s restrooms. It also could prevent Christian colleges from upholding sexual conduct requirements.
— by Bonnie Pritchett | WNS