A lawsuit brought by local pastors and others challenging the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance will be decided by a jury rather than a judge, a Texas district judge has ruled in a decision pro-family activists label a victory.
The ordinance, known as HERO, extends civil rights protection to individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Judge Robert Schaffer’s Jan. 13 ruling is “great news,” plaintiff Jared Woodfill told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s great to see that this judge is not going to allow [the city] to keep the vote from the people.”
City Attorney David Feldman told the Chronicle he “firmly believes” the case is better suited for a bench trial involving no jury but that he respects Schaffer’s decision.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker argued the case was ineligible for a jury trial under a state law declaring “election contests” can only be decided by a judge, the Chronicle reported. Plaintiffs countered that because there has been no election involving HERO, the lawsuit does not qualify as an “election contest.”
Within a few weeks of the ordinance’s May 2014 passage by the city council, a petition drive garnered more than 50,000 signatories demanding the controversial measure go before voters. Pastors, volunteers and paid personnel previewed 31,000 of the signatures for accuracy and submitted them to the city secretary’s office July 3. City Secretary Anna Russell had 30 days to certify the signatures and report her findings to the city council.
In an Aug. 1 letter to Parker and the council, Russell noted she had validated 17,826 signatures — more than enough to call an election on the issue. She had gleaned those numbers after inspecting only 19,177 signatures, resulting in a certification rate of 93 percent. But in the same letter, Russell stated that as a result of Feldman’s independent review of the petition pages, 2,750 of the 5,199 pages were declared ineligible for consideration. That left only 15,249 signatures for review, 2,000 short of the 17,269 needed to call a referendum.
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SOURCE: Baptist Press