Conservative Christians in Houston dropped off petitions filled with 50,000 signatures at City hall Thursday, throwing down the gauntlet in a fight for religious liberty city officials thought was over. If the signatures are verified, Houston must place its controversial new LGBT anti-bias ordinance on November’s ballot.
“Today was a historic day on this type of city ordinance,” said Jonathan Saenz, director of the conservative group Texas Values. “Houston … clearly declared their independence from the tyranny of the mayor.”
Mayor Annise Parker in May rammed through the “Equal Rights Ordinance” in hearings some called a sham. Supporters say it is a generic civil rights ordinance that simply includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” But religious liberty experts say it clearly forces Christian organizations and businesses to act against their biblical beliefs about sexuality.
Opponents included several Houston-area churches and the Houston Area Pastors Council, led by president Dave Welch. The group’s “No UNequal Rights” campaign had 30 days to collect 17,000 signatures for the referendum. The response was so overwhelming, Saenz said, organizers only had time to verify 30,000 of the petitions against voter rolls. “We had over 115,000 [emails] alone through our system go to their offices in opposition—so much that they banned our email system from sending messages to the city like two weeks ago,” Saenz said.
The ordinance outlaws discrimination in “any place of public accommodation.” When it comes to a person’s self-declared gender identity, that includes restrooms and locker rooms. Religious exemptions are scant, and Christian colleges likely could not uphold their sexual conduct requirements. Religious organizations can restrict housing to church membership “unless membership in the religion is restricted because of a protected characteristic,” the ordinance reads.
Parker, a lesbian, tried to deflect criticism during a news conference Thursday. “There are obviously some people in the larger community who don’t understand that concept, of unconditional love,” Parker said. She claimed many protesters were “unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves,” misleading the public on the restroom issue. “I would use the word ‘lies,’ but I’ll back off from that,” she said.
“Let me be very, very clear. It is illegal today, it will be illegal tomorrow, it will be illegal under this ordinance or not under this ordinance for a man to go into a women’s bathroom,” Parker protested.
Throughout public hearings, open bathrooms were specifically part of LGBT activists’ agenda, Saenz said. Before passing the measure, city council members removed a “good faith” defense for those who stop people from entering the wrong bathroom when they do not appear or act transgendered. LGBT activists protested the defense clause and rejoiced when the council removed it.
No UNequal Rights organizers say they found stories in Houston and other cities with similar ordinances of children encountering transgendered men in women’s facilities. But Parker maintained Thursday that ordinance opponents’ “strange obsession” with where the transgendered use the restroom was “mystifying.”
“She underestimated people because this is now not power within her grip,” Saenz said. “This is the voice of the people speaking, which she cannot control, like she has tried to control other power players.”
A referendum attempt to revoke a similar ordinance in San Antonio fell short last year, garnering only 20,000 of the 60,000 signatures needed. Under Houston’s rules, city officials have 30 days to review the petitions and certify them. Parker has already launched a website in preparation for the November election. A simple majority would repeal the ordinance, and both sides declared a sure victory.