Houston’s controversial Equal Rights Ordinance will not be put to voters this year after an important deadline to get it on the November ballot passed Monday. But on Friday, a judge suspended the ordinance until at least Jan. 19, when he will hear the entirety of the lawsuit ordinance opponents filed against the city.
Conservatives sued the city of Houston on Aug. 5 after Mayor Annise Parker’s administration ruled invalid a petition to place the LGBT anti-bias ordinance on the ballot. Religious liberty experts say the ordinance forces Christian organizations and businesses to act against their biblical beliefs about sexuality.
Led by Houston pastors, the No UNequal Rights coalition claimed City Attorney David Feldman wrongly threw out 2,750 pages of signatures, many of them over formalities such as legibility. Feldman claimed opponents were sloppy, even fraudulent, in their attempt to overturn Parker’s ordinance.
Feldman has hired private law firms to represent the city and on Friday brought more than a dozen lawyers to court to face the opponents’ single attorney, Andy Taylor. Each side launched volleys of accusations, often religiously charged, according to the Baptist Press. But before either side could present its case fully, District Judge Robert Schaffer called the lawyers into his office, where they agreed to a full trial in January. Conservatives dropped their case for a temporary injunction, while the city agreed to a court-enforced suspension of the ordinance.
Both sides quickly declared victory and disparaged the other side for saying so. City attorneys wouldn’t have ceded to the Christians’ demands if they were as confident as they say, No UNequal Rights leader Dave Welch told me.
“We withdrew our request for a temporary injunction as it was no longer needed,” Taylor told me in an email Tuesday. “Indeed, the force of our evidence and the strength of our legal position is so overwhelming, the city had no choice but to make this agreement. We are thrilled with the outcome.”
Getting a January court date is much faster than the normal year to 18 months most cases take to come to trial, Welch said. A panel of the 14th State Court of Appeals rejected conservatives’ bid to take the case more quickly in hopes they could still make the ballot deadline. Welch said ordinance opponents haven’t ruled out other options on the appellate level. While a higher court could rule before January, the deadline for the City Council to approve petitions for this November’s ballot was Monday.
So conservatives did not get everything they wanted—a quick decision and a ballot initiative this November—but the mayor’s pet project is suspended indefinitely. “I wouldn’t say that’s a victory for them. I’d say that’s a victory for the people,” Welch told me.
Welch said he expects the city to try to delay the January court date even further. “They really don’t want to try this because they know that they’re going to be destroyed on the facts,” he said.