HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) – Friday the Texas Supreme Court ruled Houston's controversial 2014 gay rights ordinance should be repealed or put to voters.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known as HERO, became the focus of the nation as a group of conservative pastors, known as the Houston Five, were subpoenaed after they took the city to court claiming their effort to place the measure on the ballot last November was unfairly thrown out.
The subpoenas, which were eventually withdrawn, asked the pastors to provide sermon notes, among other typically protected forms of religious speech.
Houston officials determined there was an insufficient number of signatures to place the measure on the ballot, after the City Secretary was said to have already certified the petition; and a state judge in April affirmed the city's decision.
The state's high court told the city council it has until Aug. 24 to repeal HERO or place it on this November's ballot.
The Supreme Court, in its decision, told Houston's city council "to comply with its duties" in the matter.
"We agree with the Relators that the City Secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the City Council's ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote," the Texas Supreme Court wrote in its decision. "The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored."
A coalition of Christian pastors, called "The Houston Five," created a stir when they sued the city of Houston, alleging Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and then city attorney, David Feldman, whose staff invalidated many of the petition pages – had set out with a personal agenda and counted incorrectly.
Calling the ruling "a huge victory for the people of the city of Houston," one of the plaintiffs, former Harris County Republican Party chief Jared Woodfill in a report in the Houston Chronicle said Parker, the first openly lesbian leader of a major American city, should apologize.
"This is all about the mayor and her personal agenda," Woodfill said. "The actions she took were unlawful, and now the court has said the people are going to have an opportunity to vote, and that's all we've asked for from day one. I think this mayor owes an apology to the people of the city of Houston."
Parker said she believes the ordinance is similar to those in other major cities and that she has "never been afraid to take it to the voters."
The mayor projected a lack of HERO "hurts Houston's well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive, and embracing of its diversity."
"We will win," she said.
Ellen Cohen, a member of Houston's City Council who supported the measure, expressed concern the lack of such an ordinance will inhibit businesses from relocating to Houston and could cause the cancellation of events and conferences.
Citing the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Cohen said in the Chronicle, "I think it's a real shame that we're going to have to be debating equal rights in the fourth largest city in the United States."
This November's election marks the first open mayor's race in six years since Parker is term-limited. There are 16 Houston City Council positions up for a vote as well.
It is anticipated the city council will opt to place the ordinance on the ballot rather than to repeal it. The original measure passed 11-6 after similar protections for gays were rejected in 1985 and in 2001.
Woodfill predicted the "eyes of the country are going to be looking at Houston," with money being thrown at candidates who understand the importance of the outcome.
Andy Taylor, the plaintiff's attorney, told FOX news Friday the victory is not about race, religion, or sexual orientation. It's about the right to vote, he said.
"It doesn't matter what you and your conscience believe when you go into the ballot box," Taylor told FOX. "It's about protecting the right to go to the ballot box."
Senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, Erik Stanley said Friday, that at the root of the problem was the way in which the citizen petitions had been handled.
"Public officials should not be allowed to run roughshod over the right of the people to decide these types of issues, especially when the citizens of Houston clearly met all the qualifications for having their voices heard," Stanley said.
"The subpoenas we successfully fought were only one element of this disgraceful abuse of power. The scandal began when the city arbitrarily threw out the valid signatures of thousands of voters," Stanley said. "The city did this all because it was bent on pushing through its deeply unpopular ordinance at any cost. The Texas Supreme Court has rightly rectified this wrong."