Houston Must Rewrite Ballot Text for LGBT Law

     HOUSTON (CN) – The Texas Supreme Court ordered Houston’s city council to revise the ballot language for an equal rights ordinance that opponents have vilified as an invitation for transgender women to use women’s restrooms.
     Under Mayor Annise Parker, a happily married lesbian in her third and final term in office, Houston’s city council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, HERO, in May 2014 to ban discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, age, disability and other grounds, in line with federal anti-discrimination laws.
     A repeal petition spearheaded by a Houston pastor and the former chair of Harris County’s Republican Party – who claim the ordinance endangers women by giving biological males who identify as transgender women permission to use women’s bathrooms – gathered enough signatures to repeal it or put it up to a vote.
     But City Attorney David Feldman, who has since left office, rejected the petition claiming it had too many invalid signatures. Petition organizers sued the city in August 2014 seeking a declaration it had more than enough legitimate signatures.
     After a state judge ruled for the city, the plaintiffs appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which determined on July 24 the city erred by not accepting the petition. The high court gave the City Council 30 days to repeal HERO or put it on the November ballot.
     The city council agreed to put the issue before voters and approved referendum language that begins, “Shall the city of Houston repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance…”
     The anti-HERO camp fired off a mandamus petition to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing city law mandates an up or down vote on the ordinance, and Parker’s administration wrote it that way to confuse Houston voters – a majority of whom, they claim, oppose the measure.
     “What she was worried about is that there would be more than 50 percent of the people who come to vote on Nov. 3 and they would vote ‘no.’ And so she tried to hijack the election by turning ‘yes’ into ‘no’ and ‘no’ into ‘yes,'” Andy Taylor, an attorney who represents the opposition, told Houston’s NPR affiliate.
     The high court’s nine justices once again sided with HERO opponents on Wednesday in a unanimous, unsigned ruling.
     To ensure observers don’t get the idea that they are playing favorites, they noted: “Our decision rests not on our views on the ordinance-a political issue the citizens of Houston must decide-but on the clear dictates of the city charter.”
     Houston’s charter combined with the Texas Election Code “requires a choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (or ‘for’ or ‘against’) as to the ordinance itself,” the justices found, and ordered Houston officials back to the drawing board on the ballot language.
     The petitioners also argued the words “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance” shouldn’t appear on the ballot because they aren’t in the ordinance and are politically biased.
     But the high court stated that since “the ordinance itself contains the words ‘Equal Rights’ in a heading the city council did not abuse its discretion by placing these words on the ballot.”
     In a statement Parker called HERO opponents “out of touch” and said she wasn’t convinced the high court has maintained neutrality.
     “With all due respect to the Texas Supreme Court, it is clear that politics is driving the law in this case. We will rewrite the ballot language, but I strongly disagree with the decision and find it to be contrary to the court’s established law regarding previous ballot initiatives,” Parker said.

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