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Sunday, October 25, 2020

City

“Bathroom Bill” HERO draws national attention to Houston, Mayor Parker


The new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance has drawn national media attention as conservatives battle against what they call the “bathroom bill” and city officials are caught with their feet in their mouths.

HERO was passed in May by the City Council. It bans discrimination in public and private places and includes a clause that allows people to use the restroom of the opposite gender if they desire. This clause has been called an enabler to sexual predation by opponents, but HERO aims to allow transgender individuals who identify with a sex other than their biological sex to use whichever restroom they feel comfortable using.

“The HERO ordinance is very important to the LGBTQ community,” LGBT Resource Center Director Lorraine Schroeder said. “Unfortunately, LGBTQ people still are discriminated against in the workplace, and this ordinance will give them a legal leg to stand on when this happens.”

Opponents of the ordinance attempted to file a petition to take the ordinance to referendum, but their attempt failed. The City requires 17,269 signatures to qualify a petition. When City Secretary Anna Russell initially counted the signatures on the HERO petition, she counted about 600 more than necessary. City Attorney David Feldman then looked through the petition and purportedly found that more than half of the petition’s pages were invalid due to disqualifications, one being that the signers did not live within Houston city limits.

“The goal was to find out if there had been any instructions given on how the petition should be accurately filled out. It’s not about, ‘What did you preach on last Sunday?’ ” — Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Those who are suing the City in Woodfill v. Parker claim that Feldman should not have recounted the signatures on the petition and that Russell’s initial count is the legal count. Even if the ordinance is brought to referendum, Schroeder is confident that Houstonians are tolerant enough to pass it by popular vote.

“I definitely think the public is ready for an ordinance that promotes equality,” Schroeder said. “There is a very vocal minority giving the impression that many people are against equality for all, but I don’t believe this is true.”

In what is perhaps a larger issue, neither Parker nor Feldman were aware that the subpoenas had been filed until Oct. 15.

“The subpoenas were issued by pro bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in January,” Evans said. “Both (Parker and Feldman) agree the original documents were overly broad.”

This hasn’t changed the wrath of conservative groups still seeking a complete repeal of the subpoenas.

“The city of Houston still doesn’t get it. It thinks that by changing nothing in its subpoenas other than to remove the word ‘sermons’ that it has solved the problem. That solves nothing,” Stanley said.

In the course of litigation proceedings, city lawyers served subpoenas to local religious leaders who were involved in collecting signatures for the petition to repeal HERO. These leaders are Dave Welch, Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida, Khanh Huynh and Steve Riggle. The subpoenas caused what Feldman dubbed a “media circus” by asking for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity.”

Conservative groups and leaders around the country are outraged that the City has committed what they deem a breach of the separation between church and state and a violation of First Amendment rights. Religious speech is indeed protected, but if religious leaders use the pulpit for political speech, that speech is not protected. UH’s Baptist Student Ministries Director B. J. Ramon said he believes that these religious leaders were overstepping their bounds if they were indeed giving political advice to their congregations during sermons.

“The pulpit is not a place for political organizing, no matter the issue,” Ramon said. “Jesus spoke to this when he was challenged on whether it is lawful to pay taxes. He said, ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.’ I do not believe Jesus died on a cross so his followers could organize politics.”

“…LGBTQ people still are discriminated against in the workplace, and this ordinance will give them a legal leg to stand on when this happens.” — LGBT Resource Center Director Lorraine Schroeder

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization, has filed a motion with the court to repeal the subpoenas. In a press release, the organization called the subpoenas a “witch hunt.” However, these religious leaders are not named parties in the suit to repeal HERO, so it may be difficult for the City to prove that the items it has subpoenaed are necessary to the court case.

“Even though the pastors are not parties in this lawsuit, the subpoenas still demand from them 17 different categories of information — information that encompasses speeches made by the pastors and private communications with their church members,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Erik Stanley.

The City has replied by proposing to amend the subpoenas to include only communications related to the petitions and therefore the litigation proceedings.

“The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process,” said the City of Houston’s Chief Policy Officer and Director of Communications Janice Evans.

Ramon wants Houstonians who are seeking faith-based advice on the issue to remember the basis of that faith.

“Both sides twist and manipulate folks in their camp to a blind hatred for the other side. This is about fear and control,” Ramon said. “I would call all involved who say they trust Jesus to remember that ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ ”

Mayor Parker held her own press conference this week where she calmly tried to dispel the frenzy that seems to be coming from all sides.

“Despite what some folks have said, we’re not interested at all in what someone may have preached about me or the LGBT community. It’s part of the discovery process for a particular lawsuit around our petition challenge for HERO,” said Parker at the press conference. “The goal was to find out if there had been any instructions given on how the petition should be accurately filled out. It’s not about, ‘What did you preach on last Sunday?’”

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