No equal rights referendum in November, but court fight continues

HOUSTON -- Don't look for "HERO" on the ballot this year.

Opponents of Houston's hotly contested equal rights ordinance – some people call it "HERO" -- have dropped their request for a judge to order a voter referendum on the issue this November.

But the fight isn't over. A lawsuit is scheduled for trial in January, so the issue could still appear on the ballot next year.

Social conservative critics of the ordinance gathered about 52,000 signatures on petitions calling for a referendum, but city officials claimed most of the petitions were invalid.

Opponents of the ordinance, who argue many of the petitions were tossed out for no good reason, filed a lawsuit and asked for an order that would have forced the city to call a referendum right away.

But after the judge questioned why they needed an immediate injunction – the city isn't enforcing the ordinance until the court case is resolved – opponents dropped their request. Still, they publicly claimed victory.

"In a city as large as Houston, you would think that the political leader, the mayor, would also stand by us and say the right to vote is sacred," said Andy Taylor, an attorney for ordinance opponents. "But I guess her agenda is more important than the citizens' right to vote."

Attorneys arguing for the city told the judge they had found evidence of what they called "rampant fraud" in the petition gathering process.

"On some pages, entire families signed, but all in the same handwriting, in the same form of signature," said David Feldman, Houston's city attorney. "That certainly would suggest a great inference of fraud.

Opponents of the ordinance told the judge many of the signatures were invalidated for specious reasons. As an example, they showed a petition signed by Oliver Pennington, a city councilmember, which they said was invalidated because he signed it with a first name that differed from his real name, "Ollin."

The wide-ranging equal rights ordinance forbids discrimination based on everything from race to religion to marital status, but the controversy has centered on protections for gays and transgendered citizens.

The lawsuit over the petition drive is set for trial in January. If the opponents win their case, the referendum would apparently be held in November 2015, putting it on the same ballot as the election to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker.


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