Supporters, city officials cheer equal rights case ruling

Apr. 17, 2015Houston Chronicle

Opponents of Houston’s contentious non-discrimination ordinance failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum, a judge ruled Friday, validating city officials’ decision to toss out the petition submitted last summer and, for the moment, ending a protracted legal battle.

Mayor Annise Parker and supporters of Houston’s equal rights law cheered the ruling, which leaves opponents 565 valid signatures short of the 17,249 needed to qualify for the ballot. The ordinance has been on hold for months as the lawsuit played out. On Friday, it went back into effect, according to the mayor’s spokeswoman.

“This is a great victory in the courts, and a great day for civil rights in Houston, Texas,” City Attorney Donna Edmundson said in a statement. “I am gratified that the judge signed a final judgment rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims and confirming that their pro-discrimination referendum petition failed.”

The city’s equal right ordinance bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

At stake in the case was not the ordinance, though, but whether or not conservative opponents gathered enough valid signatures to trigger a repeal referendum. The city attorney’s office rejected their 5,200-page petition last summer, saying it was riddled with forgery and errors. Opponents, who take issue with rights extended to gay and transgender residents under the law, said the city sought and falsely found problems with the petition. In August, they sued the city on those grounds.

The deeply technical case charted an unusual course, first going before a jury in January and then to District Judge Robert Schaffer for another set of instructions – some contradicting the jury’s – on what signatures should be considered valid. Attorneys responded to both the judge and jury’s instructions with dueling signature tallies, quibbling over everything from legibility to voter addresses. By this week, their respective counts were less than 1,000 signatures apart, closer than ever before.

Ultimately, Schaffer ruled that the final count of valid signatures was 16,684, leaving opponents short of the threshold required in the city charter of 17,249 signatures, or 10 percent of the ballots cast in the last mayoral election.

“The court therefore finds as a matter of fact and as a matter of law that the referendum petition is not valid or enforceable in all respects,” Schaffer ruled.

‘Satisfying victory’

Geoffrey Harrison, lead attorney for the city, said in a statement that the ruling was an “extremely satisfying victory the city of Houston.”

“The jury’s verdict and the judge’s ruling are a powerful smack-down against the forces of discrimination and intolerance,” Harrison said. “And maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconsider their misguided ways.”

Opponents of the ordinance, however, are already plotting their next legal move. Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he remains confident the law will go to voters. He plans to seek legal findings from the Texas Supreme Court or the appellate courts that issues such as penmanship should not preclude someone from being counted as a valid signer. Plaintiffs need to obtain a favorable ruling by August in order to qualify for the November ballot.

“We intend to appeal and are confident the higher courts will agree that good handwriting is not a valid reason to deny citizens of their constitutional rights to vote,” Taylor said.

Since City Council passed the ordinance 11-6 last May, Taylor and critics have largely cast the case as Parker attempting to quash the people’s right to vote, often invoking the Bible and calling standards such as legibility a “modern-day poll tax.” A group of pastors who fought the ordinance attended every day of the weeks-long trial, often praying outside the courtroom for the judge to send the issue to voters and rebuff Parker.

Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist and named plaintiff in the case, said he was disappointed but not discouraged by the findings. Woodfill echoed Taylor’s sentiment that the higher courts could issue important rulings on penmanship that would make it easier to petition government.

“This is just one battle in a larger war,” Woodfill said. “We are going to continue to fight for the rights of Houstonians to vote.”

Parker and the city attorney’s office have long held that they were simply applying City Charter rules in rejecting the petition last summer. Parker, who is wrapping up her final term, has said she would devote her energy to defending the ordinance if it landed on the November ballot. Houston voters twice have rejected protections or benefits for gays, in 1985 and in 2001.

Heading to a trade mission in India on Friday, Parker celebrated the ruling on Twitter.

“We have a HERO!” she tweeted. “We passed a good ordinance. We were right to reject repeal petition. Jury agreed with us, judge agreed with us!”

‘Bad public policy’

Councilman Oliver Pennington, who voted against the ordinance last May, reiterated his opposition to the ordinance. The law is divisive, unnecessary and difficult to enforce, Pennington said.

“It’s bad public policy,” he said. “The social cost would be greater than the benefits to those it proposes to benefit because it tends to divide. People feel like things are being imposed on them that they don’t believe in.”

But for Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, a champion of the law, Friday’s decision helped ease growing concerns that a vote to repeal the equal rights ordinance would damage the city’s image and economy. In recent weeks, Cohen has likened the potential ramifications to the backlash in Indiana, where a so-called “religious freedom law” was lampooned across the nation as being a thinly veiled attempt to allow discrimination.

“If this goes to the ballot and anything should happen where it’s threatened to be overturned my concern at this point – besides equal rights for all – is what it does for the city of Houston financially,” Cohen said. “I’d have great concern about the Super Bowl, the Final Four, a number of the big conventions coming to town. That’s a compelling discussion to have with people who may be opposed to it.”

Taylor said he will seek an immediate stay of the ordinance at the appellate courts, but for now it remains in effect.