Last month the Texas Supreme Court suspended the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, more commonly known as HERO, and ordered City Council to either repeal the non-discrimination measure or put it up for a public vote.
On Wednesday council voted 12-5 for the latter, and in November Houston voters will be asked this question at the polls:
“Shall the City of Houston repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530 which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information gender identity or pregnancy?”
That question, according to the coalition of pastors and conservative activists that have been fighting HERO tooth-and-nail since it went before council last year (even though religious groups are exempt from having to follow the law), is deliberately confusing and not the same as a public vote on HERO. On Friday, Andy Taylor, one of the attorneys who first sued the city over HERO alongside Steve “Men Who Lose Their Testicles Can't Read Maps” Hotze (who later dropped out of the suit), filed yet another legal challenge against the city in hopes of changing the wording of the ballot measure.
In a motion filed with the state supreme court Friday, Taylor points to the city charter language related to ballot referendums: “...such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof.”
That's the legal basis for Taylor's petition to change the ballot language – that voters should vote “yes” or “no” on HERO, not “yes” or “no” on whether to keep it.
Taylor also takes issue with the words “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance” appearing on the ballot measure at all. “[T]hat phrase is nowhere to be found in the text of the suspended ordinance,” he writes in his motion to the Supreme Court. “It is simply a gratuitous, albeit intentional, insertion designed to give proponents an edge at the polls.” To underscore this point, Taylor writes that Parker and HERO supporters would be similarly opposed to “Child Predator Protection Act” appearing on the ballot (the scare-mongering language opponents have used to describe protections for transgender citizens to use the restroom of their choice).
In case you needed any reminder of what's at the heart of this protracted legal battle, Taylor punctuates his motion with this trans-phobic gem: “The Coalition's chief concern about the ordinance is that it would potentially endow a biological male with the legal right to forcibly enter a women's public restroom without knowledge or consent of the adult or minor females using that Houston facility.”
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Ultimately, it appears the anti-HERO coalition fears the ballot language could harm their chances of success at the polls. “This is a legal recipe for an electoral disaster,” Taylor writes. “Voters will be confused, because someone who is against the proposition cannot vote against, and vice-versa.”
It's unclear why Taylor and his coalition still feel they haven't won the HERO-ballot battle and keep heading to the courts. The public now has the opportunity to cast a vote on other people's rights, which is what Taylor and other opponents have wanted all along. Is the current ballot language (do you or do you not think HERO should stand?) really so confusing as to spoil the anti-LGBT contingent's chances at the polls?
Update 3:50 p.m.: Mayor Annise Parker issued this statement this afternoon:
"The ballot language we chose came directly from the petition the pastors submitted to the City. It asks voters whether they want to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. If you want to repeal HERO you should vote yes. It is a very easy question to understand. It complies with the City Charter and a 1997 Texas Supreme Court ruling granting the City authority to select the ballot language for a referendum. This lawsuit isn't about whether the ballot language is easy to understand or complies with the law. The pastors group is opposed to a Houston free of discrimination for all and will do anything they can to try to confuse the voters.