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Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Goes On Trial


Eight months after the Houston City Council passed an Equal Rights Ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, a jury trial is scheduled to begin today in the lawsuit aimed at repealing the measure. 

But don't expect a verdict anytime soon: The trial could last six weeks or more as jurors go over thousands of pages of signatures on a petition to repeal the ordinance to determine how many are valid.

The trial will have little to do with the merits of the ordinance, which prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Houston was the last major US city to pass such an ordinance, but its enforcement is on hold pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. 

After the council approved the ordinance in May, anti-LGBT groups said they turned in more than 30,000 signatures on a petition to repeal it. However, city officials rejected the petition, saying it had only 16,500 valid signatures, fewer than the 17,269 needed to force the City Council to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot.

Anti-LGBT groups responded by filing a lawsuit, which resulted in a right-wing media firestorm after attorneys for the city subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who led opposition to the ordinance. Mayor Annise Parker eventually withdrew the subpoenas, but that didn't stop the anti-LGBT groups from staging an "I Stand Sunday" rally featuring Mike Huckabee, Phil Robertson and the Benham brothers. 

In court documents, the city's attorneys have accused anti-LGBT groups of fraud and forgery in gathering signatures, and they've filed a motion seeking summary judgment that could end the trial before it begins

If the trial proceeds and the anti-LGBT groups prevail, the ordinance likely would appear on the ballot in November. If the city prevails, the ordinance would finally go into effect. However, knowing the opposition, we're pretty sure they'd appeal. 

Out lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker has said she feels sorry for jurors who must sit through the trial but added the city will do whatever's necessary to defend the ordinance.   

Jury selection was scheduled to begin this morning, with opening arguments set for Tuesday. Stay tuned to Towleroad for continuing coverage. 

Did Anti-LGBT Groups Forge Signatures On Petition To Repeal Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance?


The above image, via The Houston Press, shows numerous signatures that appear to be in the same handwriting on a petition to repeal Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance. 

After the Houston City Council passed the LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance last summer, opponents launched a petition drive seeking to place a repeal on the ballot. However, the city ultimately rejected the petition, saying it didn't contain enough valid signatures, prompting a lawsuit from the anti-LGBT groups. 

The lawsuit is set for trial on Jan. 20. And according to The Houston Press, attorneys for the city allege in court filings that some of the signatures were not only invalid for technical reasons — but also quite possibly forged: 

WoodfillSo far, most of the City's challenges to the petitions' validity has centered around technical -- and pretty boring -- matters like whether a page included a blank space for a circulators' signature. What's really intriguing, though, is the City's more recent contention that many names were forged, and that [plaintiff Jared] Woodfill "is no stranger" to fraudulent petitions.

In motions filed last November, attorneys for the City cited a suit where Woodfill -- then the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party -- accepted "facially valid" election petitions that "turned out to involve 'forgery, fraud, or other non-accidental defects discoverable only by independent investigation."

No one has argued that Woodfill knew the signatures in that election were invalid at the time he accepted them, but attorneys for the City point out that the court didn't buy Woodfill's argument that "the truthfulness of a circulator's affidavit is strictly a criminal matter."

The November motions include a sampling of the HERO signatures that City attorneys say were "purportedly from many different people, all of whom have the same handwriting." OH SNAP.

Herotrial-excerpt-image, a website created by supporters of the ordinance, also recently posted evidence, including the above image, of possible fraud related to the repeal petition: 

We have included a publicly available document from the Harris County District Clerk's website with regards to the upcoming trial. These are excerpts of a deposition from an individual who gathered signatures for the opposition's petition efforts.

In short, he admits under oath, that he committed fraud and perjured himself by attesting that the signatures he turned in were all collected by him when, in fact, they were not.

The court document makes for an interesting read and certainly is not an isolated case.

As we have seen since the first public discussions about the ordinance, opponents have been willing to use dishonest tactics to achieve their end goal of eliminating the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. 

We will post another interesting court document this week that continues the trend of rooting out the rampant fraud in the petition process. 

Make no mistake, the opponents of HERO are not victims, they are calculating fear-mongers with little regard for ethics or the law.

As we mentioned last week, opponents of the ordinance are seeking a jury trial in the case, claiming it's their constitutional right, but the city is asking for a judge to decide the matter. The judge heard arguments on that issue last Friday, The Houston Chronicle reports: 

During a brief but lively hearing in the 152nd District Court in Houston, Judge Robert Schaffer said he will likely issue that decision Monday or Tuesday. Barring any delays, the trial is set to start Jan. 20.

Equal rights ordinance opponents are pushing to take the case before a jury instead of allowing Schaffer, as originally planned, to issue a decision from the bench. Attorneys for the city are strongly opposed to that format, saying it violates state election law to send the case to a jury. ... 

If nothing else, attorneys on both sides came away from Friday's hearing with the distinct impression that regardless of the form the trial takes, it will be a long one. Schaffer said he expected the trial to last between four and six weeks and that it will require the court to scrutinize the disputed petition pages and signatures. The plaintiffs submitted a 5,199-page petition. 

Annise Parker Plunges Into Her Final Year As Houston Mayor From 14,000 Feet: VIDEO


Annise Parker plunged into her final year as mayor of Houston from 14,000 feet at 120 mph. 

As a team-building exercise, Parker went skydiving for the first time Sunday with members of her executive team and City Council aides. 

From a press release

Mayor Annise Parker got a jump on the work ahead in 2015 with some extreme team building at Skydive Spaceland near Rosharon. 

The mayor was joined by a group of about 20 that included members of her executive team, City Council aides and others.  This was the mayor's first time skydiving.  She jumped from 14,000 feet, which is 2.6 miles high.  There was an 8,000 foot free fall at 120 MPH before the chute was pulled and she glided to a safe landing. It was a tandem jump done with the assistance of Skydive Spaceland's trained instructor Henry Prewitt.

"Honestly, this wasn't on my bucket list," says Mayor Parker. "My staff had been planning this for awhile and my original intention was to simply be on hand to support them.  As their team leader, though, I couldn't just stand by and watch. If they can do it, I can do it. I'm not sure, however, it is something I'll do again." 

When asked what was the best part of the jump Mayor Parker said, "being back on the ground."

Parker also tweeted about the experience: 


Parker2In 2009, Parker became the first openly LGBT person elected mayor of a major US city. But her third and final two-year term as Houston mayor has been her most controversial. She's been sued for extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees and over an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance passed in 2014. While the same-sex benefits case is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging Texas' marriage ban, the nondisrimination case is set for trial Jan. 19. 

Later Sunday, after the skydive, Parker reconfirmed her intention to eventually run for higher office. From The Houston Chronicle

“I hope to be able to continue to serve the citizens of this city or this state, but a lot about politics is timing,” she said, noting that many statewide officials were just elected in 2014. “I’m going to need some work to do.”

Parker said she could see herself working for a non-profit and had no interest in returning to the private sector.

Her comments on Sunday came months after she delivered a well-received speech at the Texas Democratic Convention, when she acknowledged her statewide potential in an interview.

“As the CEO of the 4th largest city in America, I could be the governor of Texas,” she said.

For a slideshow from Parker's skydive, go here

Watch's video of the mayor's dive, AFTER THE JUMP ... 

Continue reading "Annise Parker Plunges Into Her Final Year As Houston Mayor From 14,000 Feet: VIDEO" »

Judge Orders Houston to Stop Providing Insurance Benefits to Same-sex Spouses of City Employees

A Texas judge has ordered the city of Houston to stop offering health and life insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of married employees, the Houston Chronicle reports:

ParkerDays after being elected to her third and final term last November, Mayor Annise Parker announced Houston would extend employment benefits to the spouses of all married employees, gay or straight. It would be a liability for the city to enforce an unconstitutional ban on such benefits, she said, following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last summer that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

Parker's policy change spurred three lawsuits, including two from conservatives, who argued the policy change violates Houston's city charter, the state's Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution.

State District Judge Lisa Millard quickly signed an order preventing the city from offering the benefits, but that order was lifted in January after the city moved the case to federal court. [...]

Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist who filed the first lawsuit against the city, filed another lawsuit last week, again asking Millard to stop Parker from issuing benefits to same-sex couples. As she did in January, Millard agreed to issue a temporary injunction Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for Parker said the city is preparing an immediate appeal that would allow the benefits to remain in place. 

The city is also currently embroiled in a legal fight over its non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT Houstonians from discrimination. 

Ted Cruz Has a Message for Houston's Anti-gay Pastors: VIDEO


Although Ted Cruz was unable to attend the Family Research Council's anti-gay extravaganza in Houston last night (he was busy campaigning for Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Sullivan in Alaska), the tea party firebrand still managed to record a message for the right-wing pastors in attendance.

Said Cruz:

Just this past week the mayor announced that they would withdraw the subpoenas of the pastors. Praise be to God! What an answer to prayer. By God's great and mighty hand, our faith once again remains free. But these threats are ever-present. They are coming from every direction and we must remain vigilant. If we speak with resounding voice and if we stand for religious liberty, the truth will prevail. Out of the rubble, we will restore the faith that is the rock of this nation.


Continue reading "Ted Cruz Has a Message for Houston's Anti-gay Pastors: VIDEO" »

Houston Mayor Annise Parker Withdraws Subpoenas of Anti-gay Pastors

Following right-wing outrage, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced yesterday that the city would be withdrawing its subpoenas sent to five local pastors for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession."

ParkerThe Houston Chronicle reports:

Parker said she was persuaded, in part, by the demeanor of the clergymen she met with Tuesday, saying they were concerned not about the ordinance or politics but about the subpoenas' impact on the ongoing national discussion of religious freedoms.

"That was the most persuasive argument, because to me it was, 'What is the goal of the subpoenas?' The goal of the subpoenas is to defend against a lawsuit and not to provoke a public debate," Parker said. "I don't want to have a national debate about freedom of religion when my whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack."

Anti-gay conservatives, meanwhile, are rejoicing.

Said Erik Stanley, Senior Legal Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom:

“The mayor really had no choice but to withdraw these subpoenas, which should never have been served in the first place. The entire nation--voices from every point of the spectrum left to right--recognize the city's action as a gross abuse of power. We are gratified that the First Amendment rights of the pastors have triumphed over government overreach and intimidation. The First Amendment protects the right of pastors to be free from government intimidation and coercion of this sort."

PerkinsAdded FRC President Tony Perkins:

“Standing together across the nation, Christians have sent a strong message to Mayor Parker. While we are encouraged by this evidence that the Mayor is responding to pressure and withdrawing her unconstitutional subpoenas, this is about far more than subpoenas. As we have stated since the beginning of this intrusion into the private affairs of Houston churches; this is not about subpoenas, this is not about sermons, it is not even about biblical teaching on sexual immorality, it is about political intimidation and the bullying by Mayor Parker that continues.

Sunday's anti-gay extravaganza against Mayor Parker and her "radical agenda" is still expected to take place. 


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