HOUSTON – Houston's controversial equal rights ordinance will almost certainly appear on the November ballot and become a factor in the next mayor's race after a ruling from the state's highest court.
The Texas Supreme Court has ordered Houston City Council to either repeal the ordinance or put it before voters in a November referendum.
A repeal seems unlikely because most council members supported the ordinance during contentious public debates that quickly evolved into emotional arguments over the rights of gay and transgendered people.
Anti-gay opponents of the ordinance launched a petition drive calling for a referendum, but the city attorney announced the effort had failed because so many of the petitions were flawed.
Critics of the ordinance took their case to the courthouse, leading to the ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.
"The legislative power reserved to the people is not being honored…," the court ruled. "Any enforcement of the ordinance shall be suspended, and the City Council shall reconsider the ordinance. If the City Council does not repeal the ordinance by August 24, 2015, then by that date the City Council must order that the ordinance be put to popular vote during the November 2015 election."
Opponents of the ordinance were ebullient about the ruling.
"It's a slam dunk," said Jared Woodfill, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
"The right to vote has been protected and we praise God for that right," said Andy Taylor, attorney for ordinance opponents. "We live in a day where government thinks that the old adage is true, you just can't beat city hall. Well, we beat city hall."
Mayor Annise Parker released the folllowing statement in regards to the ruling:
"Obviously, I am disappointed and believe the court is in error with this eleventh hour ruling in a case that had already been decided by a judge and jury of citizens. Nonetheless, we will proceed with the steps necessary for City Council to consider the issue. At the same time, we are consulting with our outside counsel on any possible available legal actions.
Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance is similar to measures passed by every other major city in the country and by most local corporations. No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally. 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!"
This new ruling is just the latest twist in the ongoing saga of the ordinance, which is a sweeping anti-discrimination measure that triggered a passionate debate about the rights of gay and transgendered citizens.
Shortly after it passed, socially conservative clergymen led a petition drive calling for a referendum on repealing it.
But the city argued the petitions were fraught with forgeries and other problems that invalidated thousands of signatures.
Opponents of the ordinance took the case to court, leading to a trial in which jurors delivered a mixed verdict on the validity of the signatures.
In mid-April, a judge ruled in favor of the city.
The controversy caught nationwide attention after attorneys representing the city subpoenaed sermons of clergymen supporting the petition drive.