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Houston anti-bias policy fight hinges on petition review

Houston City Hall Wikimedia Commons/Ed Uthman

Houston anti-bias policy fight hinges on petition review

A Texas judge has suspended Houston’s controversial new LGBT anti-bias ordinance pending a hearing Friday.

Conservatives sued the city of Houston Aug. 5 after Mayor Annise Parker’s administration ruled invalid a petition to place the Equal Rights Ordinance on the November ballot. Religious liberty experts say the ordinance forces Christian organizations and businesses to act against their biblical beliefs about sexuality.

City Attorney David Feldman tried to transfer the case to federal court, a move opponents declared a “delay tactic.” But Thursday morning, with little to no debate, a federal judge threw the case back to state courts. State District Judge Jeff Shadwick then put the ordinance on hold and set a hearing for Friday. Conservatives, who want voters to have a say on the ordinance, have asked for a faster trial. The deadline for the petition to be placed on the November ballot is Aug. 18.

The No UNequal Rights coalition, led by Dave Welch, calls efforts to kill the petition “a conspiracy to deprive the citizens of Houston the right to vote on this referendum.” Parker is open about her homosexual relationship and her personal investment in the ordinance.

The coalition’s suspicion arises from the city charter, which places the responsibility for verifying petitions on City Secretary Anna Russell. By her own admission, in a report sent to Parker, Russell said she had verified more than enough signatures on July 27 to meet the 17,289 required. But Feldman threw out 2,750 pages of signatures, many of them over formalities like the legibility of signatures, even though they were notarized.

The court battle focuses on the final paragraph of Russell’s report, which cites the city attorney’s decisions. The judge will have to get into the nitty gritty of the city charter—what powers the city attorney has, what is required of petition circulators and notaries, and which petition count is valid, Feldman’s or Russell’s.

Russell confirmed she did not receive Feldman’s analysis nullifying more than half the petitions until Aug. 4. Later that day, Parker and Feldman declared the petition invalid. “I worked up a storm on Aug. 4,” Russell told me. “We had several staff members working on it. … I didn’t check all of the data he had, but I reviewed what he said and the numbers he used.”

I asked Russell whether she reviewed all of the pages Feldman ruled invalid, since she accepted 100 percent of his decisions. “I didn’t accept anything he said,” she interrupted. “I just said it was attached and that I had reviewed it.” When I asked her whether she had any say on the pages Feldman decided to throw out, she said she had no comment.

That’s what the court will probe. Welch’s group argues Russell, a city hall veteran, probably was not allowed to challenge Feldman’s decision. But the city charter does not give Feldman the authority to make decisions regarding a petition review. Feldman’s office referred all my questions to the mayor’s public relations office.

Janice Evans, Parker's communications director, told me not to read too much into Russell’s “no comment” because she doesn’t like the media, and that’s her way of saying “go away.” Russell worked hard Aug. 4, Evans said, right up until the announcement.

Russell has been a city employee for 63 years and city secretary since 1972. “And it’s probably too long,” she told me, laughing.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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