Houston voters will decide in November whether to repeal the city’s hotly contested equal-rights ordinance, also known as the transgender “bathroom bill,” after a Wednesday vote of the city council.
The council voted 13-4 in favor of a ballot measure that asks voters whether to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics, requiring businesses open to the public to allow opposite-sex bathroom use.
The council, which passed the ordinance in May 2014, had little choice after the Texas Supreme Court ruled July 24 that the city had violated its charter by overruling the city secretary’s approval of petitions to place the measure on the ballot.
The decision represents an enormous victory for the pastor-led coalition fighting the ordinance, but the ballot language approved Wednesday by the council could ignite another court fight.
The four council members who voted against the ballot measure argued that language should be framed so that voters who oppose the ordinance would be able to vote “no” on the HERO, instead of “yes” on the repeal.
At Wednesday’s meeting, which was live-streamed, the council rejected an amendment to reframe the ballot language brought by council member C.O. Bradford. His proposal would have asked the voters, “Shall the city of Houston implement” the equal-rights ordinance.
“I guess it’ll be back to the courthouse again and that’s unfortunate, because we could get it right and we could move this thing forward for the voters to vote on it, and not spend hundreds of thousands of additional dollars,” Mr. Bradford said. “But I think that’s where we are.”
Council member David Martin accused Mayor Annise Parker and other council members of trying to stack the deck in favor of the ordinance, calling the approved ballot language “very confusing.”
“So when somebody walks in, the natural reaction to most people in a proposition is to vote ‘no,’” Mr. Martin said. “There’s a lot of ‘no’ voters that will vote ‘no’ no matter what the ordinance is. I think the language is a purposeful attempt to mislead voters and I think council member Bradford’s — laugh all you want, mayor—council member Bradford’s proposition is clear and direct, in your words, and does not mislead voters.”
“You need a proposition that states, if you want HERO implemented, you vote ‘yes.’ If you do not want HERO implemented, you vote ‘no,’” Mr. Martin said.
Council member Ellen Cohen countered that, “I guess I put a lot more stock into the intelligence of the Houston city voters than perhaps some of my colleagues.”
“What we’re proposing is, ‘Shall the city of Houston repeal?’ Those six words, I don’t think, are confusing,” Ms. Cohen said. “As opposed to, ‘Shall the city of Houston implement?’ I think that’s confusing.”
Other council members pointed out that the approved language meshed closely with the language in the petition to overturn the ordinance, but Mr. Martin argued the city charter calls for an affirmative vote to overturn an ordinance.
The charter says that “such ordinances or resolutions shall not take effect” unless a majority of voters “vote in favor thereof,” he said.
“[T]he charter tells us, not a petition, not anything else, that we must put an ordinance on the ballot where qualified voters at such elections shall vote ‘in favor,’” Mr. Martin said. “So ‘in favor’ means, ‘Yes, implement HERO.’ A vote against it means, ‘No, do not implement HERO,’ according to the city charter.”
When asked if the language was consistent with the charter, however, First Assistant City Attorney Deidra Penny said that it was.
“The language that was originally proposed is consistent with the city charter and the Supreme Court decisions,” Ms. Penny said.
The high court gave the Houston city council 30 days either to repeal the ordinance or place it on the November ballot. Shortly before moving the ordinance to the ballot at Wednesday’s meeting, the council voted 12-5 to keep the law in place.
Several pastors filed a lawsuit Monday seeking unspecified court costs and damages from the city incurred when the city issued subpoenas last year for sermons as part of the ongoing legal fight.
“This new lawsuit is not about civil rights or religious freedom,” said Ms. Parker in a Monday statement. “It’s about politics. It is being waged by a small group that wants to take Houston backward instead of moving it forward.”