By John Griffing
HOUSTON – Testimony in a trial for five Houston-area pastors suing the city to have an election on a transgender ordinance has begun, with one minister accusing the city of calling “an entire community of churches and citizens criminals.”
The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of pastors and groups in Houston who oppose an ordinance council members adopted at the urging of lesbian Mayor Annise Parker.
The measure requires Houston businesses and organizations to recognize transgenders with certain rights and privileges.
The pastors immediately collected signatures to overturn the ordinance, but the city’s lawyer, working on behalf of Parker, stepped into the dispute after the city secretary had affirmed there were enough valid signatures and disqualified pages and pages of names.
Pastor Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council was on the stand as the trial opened Tuesday, responding to claims by the city that the names were not handled properly.
“Given the fact that we pre-verified over 30,000 signatures as being registered voters, and every single person went before a notary public, and swore and oath, before the law, that they indeed were the person who gathered those signatures, many of which came out of the churches, we had every reason to believe those were done honestly, ethically and properly before the law,” he told the court.
“Frankly,” he responded to city attorneys at one point, “what you are doing is calling an entire community of churches and citizens criminals. Fraud and forgery are crimes; that’s exactly what you are asserting, and I find that offensive.”
The city, which previously delayed the case, recently lost an argument in court in which officials demanded that a special master be assigned to the case and that a judge make the decision rather than a jury.
At the time, Parker has promised to do “whatever” is needed to defend the transgender ordinance, which she has described as “personal.” Her opponents say that’s not particularly surprising, since she has been deceptive “every step of the way” in the case.
The mayor at one point created a firestorm of negative publicity for her city by issuing subpoenas for copies of pastors’ sermons.
Welch told the court there may have been a mistake over the course of collecting tens of thousands of signatures.
“One petition page is far from being ‘rife with’ fraud. … These are citizens doing this, and someone may add on a signature not realizing something may not be notarized. It is a matter of investigative intent and process, and I have no issue with the process,” he said.
But when city attorneys started going through multiple pages of signed petitions, asking Welch to determine forgery, fraud or accident, he responded.
“I am not going to ascribe motives or intent to the individuals who collected these signatures,” he said. “Do you want me to keep repeating myself? This is a matter of process and enthusiasm of people getting out and getting signatures. A referendum drive like this has not been done in the city for many years.”
When the council adopted it, over the objection of a multitude of city groups, the coalition of pastors collected more than 50,000 signatures to reverse it.
City Secretary Anna Russell, who has served Houston for more than four decades, explained in a deposition she stopped counting signatures at about 19,000 because the minimum number of valid signatures had been surpassed. She explained she understood the city charter “provides that the city secretary determine the number of qualified voters who sign the petition.”
In her deposition testimony, she was asked: “And based on that understanding, you did that; and the result of your work was that 17,846 signatures had been validated. And that was more than the minimum number necessary, correct?”
“That’s correct,” she replied.
Her original report on the signatures said, “As of July 27, 2014, the number of qualified city of Houston voters who signed the petition had been verified with a margin of error.”
But city attorney David Feldman then simply added a statement to her report that disqualified most of the signatures.
Russell said in her 42 years of service as city secretary for the city of Houston she has never had a city attorney interfere with her validating and reporting duties.
Lawyers for Parker also asked Welch, who recently has been called to help in a similar dispute in Plano, Texas, why a “signature line” was included on those petitions.
“I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night,” he said. “We decided not to give a city any excuse to be hostile to the voters and invalidate their signatures. In Plano, we put a signature line there anyway, even though the Plano city charter doesn’t require it, so that we wouldn’t have another protracted legal fight as we now have in Houston.”
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jared Woodfill, released a statement saying: “Since last summer, we have been fighting to allow the people to vote on Mayor Parker’s liberal agenda for Houston and our state. The time has finally arrived when the mayor will be put on trial for unlawfully overturning the will of the people, for obstructing the proper counting of petition signatures and disenfranchising over 50,000 voters, for engaging in subversion of the rule of law, for attempting to take away our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial, and for using the power of government to trample on the First Amendment religious freedoms enjoyed by pastors.
“The mayor clearly does not believe in the Constitution and the values of freedom it enshrines. Texas will not allow tyranny-by-bureaucrats to replace the peaceful, democratic discourse of the last century,” he said.
In a move that prompted a barrage of criticism nationwide, Parker subpoenaed the sermons of the five pastors, demanding copies of any communications related to her and “gay” issues. She promptly was criticized by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, America’s top-rated radio host, who described the mayor’s actions as “vile.”
“I think what that mayor in Houston has done may be one of the most vile, filthy, blatant violations of the Constitution that I have seen,” Limbaugh said on his national broadcast. “And I, for the life of me, cannot figure out why law authorities are not pursuing this. I cannot understand it.”
Steve Riggle, one of the pastors targeted by the city’s subpoenas, at the time issued a statement to city council members, calling on them to decide whether they were supporting the mayor in her actions.
“As a citizen of Houston for over 30 years and a community leader, I feel our city has suffered enough national embarrassment over this issue when what we have asked for all along is to simply let the people decide,” he said.
WND also reported a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Parker, urging her to back down from her demand for copies of pastors “speeches.”
“I write to express my concern regarding subpoenas requesting extensive information from pastors who are involved in the Equal Rights Ordinance Referendum,” wrote Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. “These discovery requests threaten to have a chilling effect on religious and political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”
The mayor’s contact information:
Mayor Annise D. Parker
City of Houston
P.O. Box 1562 Houston, Texas 77251
Phone: (713) 837-0311
Email: [email protected]