The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that Houston City Council must repeal the city’s equal rights ordinance or place it on the November ballot.
The ruling comes three months after a state district judge ruled that opponents of Houston’s contentious non-discrimination ordinance passed last year failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum.
“We agree with the Relators that the City Secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the City Council’s ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote,” the Texas Supreme Court wrote in a per curiam opinion. “The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored.”
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.
Houston City Council has 30 days to repeal the ordinance or place it on the November ballot.
Opponents sued the city, complaining that City Secretary Anna Russell had determined that petitioners had collected enough signatures to force a repeal measure onto the ballot, but had been overridden by Mayor Annise Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman, whose staff determined many of the valid signatures were on invalid petition pages.
One of the plaintiffs, former Harris County Republican Party chief Jared Woodfill, called the ruling “a huge victory for the people of the city of Houston.” He called on Parker, the first openly gay leader of a major American city, to apologize to the public.
“This is all about the mayor and her personal agenda,” Woodfill said. “The actions she took were unlawful, and now the court has said the people are going to have an opportunity to vote, and that’s all we’ve asked for from day one. I think this mayor owes an apology to the people of the city of Houston.”
A “disappointed” Parker said she thought the court had erred in its “eleventh hour ruling” and said her team was consulting with the city’s pro bono outside counsel on “any possible available legal actions.” She said the ordinance resembles measures passed by other major U.S. cities and many local companies.
“No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally,” Parker said. “To do otherwise, hurts Houston’s well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and embracing of its diversity. Our citizens fully support and understand this and I have never been afraid to take it to the voters. We will win!”
Woodfill said he anticipates the ruling will greatly influence this November’s elections, which will see the first open mayor’s race in six years because Parker is term-limited; all 16 council positions also are up for a vote. Political observers have assumed the council will place the ordinance to a vote rather than repeal it, as the measure was adopted on an 11-6 vote.
Houston voters twice have rejected protections or benefits for gays, in 1985 and in 2001.
“You’re going to have money pouring in from all across the country on this issue because it’s extremely important,” Woodfill said. “We’re going to be looking at mayoral candidates, city council candidates that stand with us on this important issue. The eyes of the country are going to be looking at Houston.”
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who helped rally votes for the measure’s passage at council, said she remains concerned that the spectacle of a political debate over the topic could, as similar debates have in other states, harm local businesses, cause the cancellation of events or conventions, and make firms less likely to relocate to Houston.
“I’m disappointed,” Cohen said. “Frankly, in this day and age, particularly with the recent (U.S.) Supreme Court decision (legalizing gay marriage), I think it’s a real shame that we’re going to have to be debating equal rights in the fourth largest city in the United States.”