HOUSTON — A lawsuit brought by local pastors and others challenging the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance will be decided by a jury rather than a judge, a Texas district judge has ruled in a decision pro-family activists label a victory.
The ordinance, known as HERO, extends civil rights protection to individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Judge Robert Schaffer’s Jan. 13 ruling is “great news,” plaintiff Jared Woodfill told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s great to see that this judge is not going to allow [the city] to keep the vote from the people.”
City Attorney David Feldman told the Chronicle he “firmly believes” the case is better suited for a bench trial involving no jury but that he respects Schaffer’s decision.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker argued the case was ineligible for a jury trial under a state law declaring “election contests” can only be decided by a judge, the Chronicle reported. Plaintiffs countered that because there has been no election involving HERO, the lawsuit does not qualify as an “election contest.”
Within a few weeks of the ordinance’s May 2014 passage by the city council, a petition drive garnered more than 50,000 signatories demanding the controversial measure go before voters. Pastors, volunteers and paid personnel previewed 31,000 of the signatures for accuracy and submitted them to the city secretary’s office July 3. City Secretary Anna Russell had 30 days to certify the signatures and report her findings to the city council.
In an Aug. 1 letter to Parker and the council, Russell noted she had validated 17,826 signatures — more than enough to call an election on the issue. She had gleaned those numbers after inspecting only 19,177 signatures, resulting in a certification rate of 93 percent. But in the same letter, Russell stated that as a result of Feldman’s independent review of the petition pages, 2,750 of the 5,199 pages were declared ineligible for consideration. That left only 15,249 signatures for review, 2,000 short of the 17,269 needed to call a referendum.
Feldman’s actions, which opponents contend are not sanctioned by the city charter, disqualified valid signatures on the pages in question. The attorney, in an Aug. 4 letter to Russell, said his review of the petition revealed too many irregularities forcing him to declare pages invalid. Some of the irregularities cited by Feldman cannot be found in the city charter, such as illegible signatures by the petition circulator.
“Feldman did not have the legal authority to intervene with the validation and acted as judge, jury and executioner by declaring 2,750 entire petitions invalid due to his claim of technical problems,” Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, stated in an Aug. 7 press release.
Parker has been outspoken in her support of the ordinance and took its passage personally. As a lesbian in a long-term relationship with another woman, Parker said the ordinance was about her. It has received unwavering support from the LGBT community. But other Houston residents challenged the ordinance, calling it a threat to religious liberty. As has been the case in other cities, they fear local business owners will be forced to offer services in violation of their religious convictions or face a fine.
A trial date for the lawsuit is expected to be set next week.