Attorneys for Houston’s lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, who is defending a city ordinance granting special rights to transgenders, are insisting to the Texas Supreme Court that opponents have no claim in court, because their petition to reconsider the law was never “validated.”
The argument, however, contradicts the sworn testimony of the city secretary, who has the authority to validate the signatures and determined the petition drive met the minimum requirement.
The city’s brief to the state Supreme Court was filed by attorney Lynne Liberato in a case brought by a coalition of local organizations that had collected about 55,000 signatures, three times more than the required amount, to force the city either to repeal the ordinance or let voters decide on it.
After the city adopted the ordinance in May, the signatures were gathered, and the city secretary affirmed the minimum number had been obtained. But the city attorney then stepped in and invalidated most of the signatures.
The opponents filed suit, and a trial was set for January. In the discovery process, the mayor issued subpoenas for any statements, emails or “sermons” on the issue from five local pastors who were members of a coalition opposing the ordinance but not part of the lawsuit. In the uproar that followed, the city changed the word “sermons” to “speeches,” but attorneys for the ministers said it really made no difference.
The coalition asked the state Supreme Court to step in and order the city to follow its charter, which specifies that ordinances opposed by a certain number of residents shall be halted.
In arguing now that the state Supreme Court should keep out of the case, the city said that “because the city secretary did not validate the referendum petition, the second step of the referendum processes – the city council’s ‘immediate’ reconsideration of the ordinance or popular vote – was never triggered.”
The city’s lawyers argued the city charter “does not require respondents to act, immediately or otherwise, on an unsuccessful referendum petition.”
However, the city secretary, Anna Russell, who has served Houston for more than four decades, was asked by plaintiffs’ attorney Andy Taylor in a deposition about validation of the signatures.
Russell had explained it was her understanding “that the [city] charter provides that the city secretary determine the number of qualified voters who sign the petition.”
Taylor then 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
Taylor told WND in an interview that the city’s filing was a “head fake” to try to keep the state Supreme Court from intervening and ordering the city to follow its charter and act on the petition.
He said the city essentially brought up three points – that the Supreme Court doesn’t have jurisdiction because a trial is scheduled in January, that there are disagreements a trial judge needs to decide first and the case needs to run its course through the system because of arguments of time, signatures and other issues.
But, he said, the charter requires immediate action on such petitions, not a leisurely trip through the court system.
He said the violations are ongoing and need to be addressed.
And he said there are no real issues to decide, since the city secretary, as required in the city charter, ruled there were enough signatures on the petition.
In fact, she noted that she only looked through about one-third of the signatures submitted, because the minimum already had been reached, and there was no point in spending more time.
It wasn’t until after she had prepared her report, she said in the deposition, that the city attorney came to her and told her that he had invalidated most of the signatures and that she ultimately revised her report to add that statement.
Taylor told WND that Russell also, in a memo about the dispute, had used the word “certify” regarding the petition signatures.
“She did her job,” he said.
Taylor said the mayor and city attorney “ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“Our clients have a constitutional right of free speech, of freedom of religion, freedom to petition government for redress,” he said. “It’s absolutely unbelievable that the mayor in her zeal to defend a ‘gay-lesbian’ ordinance would trample the voting rights of over a million people in Houston.”
In her official report about the petition, Russell 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.”
It was only days later that City Attorney David Feldman instructed her to add to her report the statement: “According to the city attorney’s office and reviewed by the city secretary the analysis of the city attorney’s office, 2,750 pages containing 16,010 signatures do not contain sufficient acknowledgment as required by the charter. Therefore, according to the city attorney’s office only 2,449 pages containing 15,249 signatures can lawfully be considered toward the signatures required.”
The coalition challenging the city’s ordinance stated Russell “confirmed that 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.”
“She also confirmed she had nothing to do with the affidavit section of the petition and that the scrutiny applied to it was entirely the work of Feldman. ”
Civil rights commissioner to mayor: Back down
WND reported early Thursday 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.”
WND reported Rush Limbaugh, America’s top-rated radio host, described Parker’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 Wednesday 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.”
WND broke the story more than a week ago of the city’s response to a lawsuit against the”bathroom bill.”
WND reported outrage from across the nation ensued, and lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom asked a court to throw out the subpoenas. Amid the protest, city officials at first doubled down, with Parker stating, “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”
But Houston officials then said they would narrow the scope of their demand to “speeches” instead of sermons, a move ADF legal counsel Joe La Rue said was “wholly inadequate.”
In a telephone conference call that announced plans for a nationwide simulcast rally, called IStandSunday” on Nov. 2, Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins said the Houston pastors were just doing what they should have been doing – “preaching the word of God as it pertains to today.”
“In reality this is not about speeches,” he said. “It’s about political intimidation. … It’s about the mayor using her bully pulpit to try to silence the [church] pulpits of Houston.”
Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of the first to jump to the defense of the pastors “under siege,” said, the mayor may have “unwittingly” awakened people in the pews.
“A lot of businesses and frankly some churches … [have said] ‘We don’t want to get involved. We don’t want to have people picketing us, sending us nasty emails.’ I understand that,” Huckabee said. But, “if we allow the bullying to continue I think we’re going to see the silencing of the message in pulpits.”
Dave Welch, a Houston pastor targeted by the subpoenas, said the pastors have gone too far in the fight to give up now.
“At the end of the day if we have to carry this all the way through, we will,” he said. “The question is, how could this happen in Houston?”
He said it is because voters across American have allowed “these critical institutions to fall into the hands of those who are of an opposite world view, and are intentionally deconstructing God’s created world order.
“Elections have consequences … the ungodly use of power, and frankly just the evil abuse of that,” he said.
Welch noted that among city council members who earlier supported the mayor’s plan, there now are several who are reconsidering.
“‘This is overreach,'” he said they told him.
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]