Civil Rights Lawsuits|Stir Up Houston Pastors

     HOUSTON (CN) – Houston’s mayor violated the civil rights of five pastors by sending them subpoenas asking for their sermons, four pastors claim in court.
     Under Mayor Annise Parker, an open lesbian in her third and final term in office, Houston’s City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, HERO, in May 2014.
     The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, sexual identity and numerous other grounds, mirroring federal anti-discrimination laws. The other major cities in Texas – Dallas, San Antonio and Austin – have similar measures on the books.
     The ordinance exempted religious institutions but opponents, including some Houston religious leaders, found fault with it immediately. They claim the law gives transgender, biological males leave to enter public restrooms reserved for women.
     They launched a repeal petition drive and gathered more than 54,000 signatures and delivered it to City Secretary Anna Russell for certification in July 2014.
     Russell certified that the petition had 17,846 valid signatures, more than the required 17,269.
     But Mayor Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman called a news conference a few days later and said they were rejecting the petition because it had too many invalid signatures.
     Petition organizers sued the city in August 2014, seeking a declaration that it had more than enough valid signatures.
     After a state judge ruled in the city’s favor, the plaintiffs appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled on July 24 that the city erred by not accepting the petition.
     “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 unanimous opinion. “The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored.”
     The high court gave the City Council 30 days to repeal HERO or put it on the November ballot.
     Buoyed by the ruling, four Houston pastors and the Houston Area Pastors Council sued Parker on Monday in Harris County Court.
     Some of the ministers were among five pastors to whom Parker issued subpoenas in discovery for the petition signatures lawsuit.
     “Parker requested a long list of documents and communications,” the new lawsuit states. “Among them were ‘all speeches, presentations, or sermons’ related to the so-called Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and ‘all communications with members of your congregation’ regarding ‘HERO’ and the Citizen Referendum Petition,” the complaint states.
     The pastors’ attorney Andy Taylor of Brenham told Houston’s National Public Radio affiliate the pastors are seeking only vindication.
     “We’re not seeking money, but we’re seeking a legal ruling which says you cannot unconstitutionally step over the line and violate the freedom of religion,” Taylor told NPR.
     Taylor also represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the petition signatures, and the new lawsuit asks the city to cover his fees.
     Houston’s City Council has not yet decided whether to repeal HERO or put it on the ballot. Parker said the council is “consulting with our outside counsel on any possible available legal actions” after the Texas Supreme Court ruling.
     Parker issued a statement Monday about the pastors’ lawsuit: “This new lawsuit is not about civil rights or religious freedom. It’s about politics. It is being waged by a small group that wants to take Houston backward instead of moving it forward. I respect the pastors’ right to use our legal process how they see fit, but their energy would be better invested in making sure Houston remains a welcoming, inclusive city that does not discriminate.”
     The plaintiffs are F.N. Williams Sr., of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church; Hernan Castano, director of Hispanic Church Development for the Houston Area Pastor Council; Magda Hermida, founder of Magda Hermida Ministries; and Khanh Huynh of the Vietnamese Baptist Church.

%d bloggers like this: