A coalition led by Houston pastors will appeal a judge’s decision Friday that prevents a voter referendum on a transgender-rights ordinance promoted by the city’s openly lesbian mayor.
The case drew national attention last year when WND broke the story Mayor Annise Parker issued subpoenas to five pastors for copies of their sermons and other communications. The pastors later called for an investigation of city hall’s actions.
A nationwide outpouring of criticism prompted officials to drop the subpoenas.
Rush Limbaugh at the time called the subpoenas “one of the most vile, filthy, blatant violations of the Constitution that I have seen.”
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Judge Robert Schaffer ruled Friday that the pastors had collected 16,684 valid signatures, just short of the 17,269 needed to force a public vote on the ordinance. The ruling conflicted with the deposition of longtime city secretary, Anna Russell, who testified she stopped counting signatures at about 19,000 because the minimum had been met.
At issue is an “equal rights” ordinance adopted by the City Council at the mayor’s urging last year granting transgenders additional rights.
The coalition against the measure led by the Houston Area Pastor Council collected some 54,000 signatures, pre-verifying that 31,000 were from registered voters in the city.
Russell testified the city charter “provides that the city secretary determine the number of qualified voters who sign the petition.”
In her 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.
But the city attorney, David Feldman, then stepped in and disqualified most of the signatures that had been collected, and the city has been fighting efforts to overturn the ordinance ever since.
The pastors’ coalition Friday released a statement expressing “enthusiastic confidence” in its ultimate resolution of the case. Plans were being made for an appeal.
Schaffer held a three-week trial in January and since then has been hearing city arguments over how to disqualify more signatures, a spokesman for the pastors’ group told WND.
The group released a statement explaining, “We have known since last August that this massive coalition that represents every corner and color of Houston did yeoman’s work, went over and above and met the standard.”
The coalition said Schaffer “was supported in his election by the LGBT community” and accepted “the constantly changing manipulations of the law by the city’s ‘legal machine’ and mayor’s team.”
“We will not yield the safety and welfare, the voting rights and constitutional freedoms of the citizens that have been stolen by the corrupt Parker regime. The law and the appellate courts in Texas are very strong in preserving voting rights so are confident we will prevail,” the coalition statement said. “The fact that the city’s own numbers of how many valid signatures we had submitted materially changed nearly a dozen times since August illustrates how desperate they are to keep this off the ballot.”
Houston officials declined to respond to a WND request for comment.
A coalition spokesman told WND the “tortured twists and turns of fabricated fairyland interpretations by this judge and the city of Houston have just been impossible to keep up with.”
He said appeals courts in Texas traditionally are “strong” on voting rights.
WND reported the city even challenged the signatures of senior citizens because the signatures were difficult to read.
“I am 84 years old. My handwriting is shaky, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” one senior wrote in an affidavit in the case.
F.N. Williams, senior pastor at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, earlier said the city’s attorneys “went to extraordinary lengths to discredit, demean, denigrate and disqualify as many petitions and signatures as possible.”
Pastor Steve Riggle, a leader of the coalition, said the pastors all along knew the fight over the ordinance might be long and hard.
“We are … greatly confident that justice will be served and the people will have our day at the ballot on this very important matter,” he said.
WND also reported a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Parker when the subpoenas were issued, 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.”
Parker has promised in the past to do “whatever” is needed to defend the transgender ordinance, which she has described as “personal.”
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]