Houston's attorneys argue commas, penmanship against pastors in LGBT ordinance lawsuit

by Joni B. Hannigan |

(Houston Public Media)David Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor's Council, testifies Jan. 27 in District Court in Houston.

HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) -- Fourteen jury members heard opening arguments in District Court Tuesday in Houston in a case which received widespread attention last year when five Houston-area ministers were subpoenaed about their involvement in a petition drive calling for a referendum on a controversial LGBT rights ordinance.

At the heart of the issue is the number of valid signatures collected. The No UnEqual Rights Coalition, an ad hoc association of area pastors and Houston residents, say they collected more than were needed -- even if some were invalidated due to errors -- to place the Human Rights Ordinance (HERO) on the ballot last year. But an attorney for the city, David Feldman, who has since resigned in order to testify in the case, disqualified more than half of them in August.

You are calling an entire community of churches and people criminals. ... There are citizens out there who don't know every jot and tittle of the law, but that is far from being rife with fraud and forgery.
-- David Welch, Houston Area Pastor's Council

City attorneys so far in opening arguments, and in examination of key witness David Welch, focused on several hundred petitions -- out of more than 5,000 -- they allege are the result of "fraud" or "forgery," a charge Welch denied.

"Fraud and forgery, Mr. Harrison, are crimes of intent," Welch told the city's defense attorney Geoffrey Harrison. "I find that offensive, and it's a flat-out lie."

Welch refused to "ascribe intent" to what he called "mistakes" on the part of Houstonians who signed the petitions and gathered signatures. Mistakes the defense said were illegible signatures, missing names, a missing signature line, and what could be duplicate names.

We are talking about the right to vote. On their side, they are talking about ticky-tacky deficiencies like they are missing a comma, or our signature is hard to read.
-- Andy Taylor, Attorney

"You are calling an entire community of churches and people criminals," Welch said. "There are citizens out there who don't know every jot and tittle of the law, but that is far from being rife with fraud and forgery."  

In a press conference outside the courtroom, Harrison told reporters once the citizens filed a lawsuit, the city began to "look more deeply into the issues of the petition" and consequently begin to "discern that there were forgeries."

He shrugged off the suggestion on the part of Welch that these were "mistakes" caused by citizen voters, but told Christian Examiner the city would not pursue criminal charges.

"The city does not plan to bring any kind of criminal prosecution," Harrison said. "The city does plan to defend the city charter and the Texas Election Code and to uphold protections that have been around for over 100 years against election fraud, forgery, and other non-accidental defects and the failure by these petition coalition coordinators to comply with the clear rule of law."

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER & THE PEOPLE

After HERO was passed by the City Council last May, Mayor Annise D. Parker, the city's first openly lesbian city official, heralded it as the "most personally satisfying and most personally meaningful thing" she has done as mayor.

Responding to a reporter's question about why the issue is not just sent to voters, Harrison said: "The people have voted. The people elected Mayor Annise Parker and elected the members of City Council who voted for this ordinance. The people have voted.

"What you now have is a small group of coalition members who based on their own religious belief, which they are allowed to have, are trying to overturn the law of the duly affected, duly elected, city officials, elected by the people," Harrison said.

CITIZEN VOTERS

Interviewed on the stand first by the attorney representing the citizen's organization, Andy Taylor, Welch described his involvement in the petition drive, explaining the process he took to create the petitions; the lengths he took to have volunteers review the petitions to ensure registered voters signed them; and the investigation he did after the petitions were thrown out to try and understand any oversights.

Another of the city's attorney's, Alex Kaplan, in his opening remarks, said the city has "very clear and very specific rules" outlined in its more than 100-year-old charter.

It is in cases like this when "rules are most important," Kaplan reminded jurors. He noted there is "high public passion," and again said it is in such cases that rules are "most important" because "that's what this case is all about."

Kaplan told jurors the case is not about the ordinance itself, and whether it is a "good policy" or a "bad policy," and it did not matter to the case whether they are "Democrats or Republicans," and that it was not about "free speech" or the "First Amendment."

Instead, he said, it is about "the facts in this case," which he offered as the number of valid signatures, who could validate those signatures, and how they were validated, that matter.

In closing his remarks, however, Kaplan indicated all cases require the same amount of scrutiny and all are equally important.

In acknowledging this is only the second case of citizens attempting to place a referendum on the ballot in the past 40 years, Taylor said in the press conference, it is important to note there are "constitutional" and "fundamental" rights at play.

"We are talking about the right to vote," Taylor exclaimed.

"On their side, they are talking about ticky-tacky deficiencies like they are missing a comma, or our signature is hard to read," he said. "I mean, give me a break. Did our forefathers die in battle so that commas could prevent their children from voting. We have a right to vote and we are gonna vote."

The trial is expected to continue into Feburary with Parker on the stand sometime next week.

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