Tensions over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance flared on Tuesday as dozens of supporters urged the City Council to put the ordinance before voters in November.
The public comments marked the second time HERO backers addressed the City Council since the Texas Supreme Court ordered the city to repeal the ordinance or put it before voters. Speaker after speaker – more than 50 people over two hours – voiced their support for HERO and asked the council to put it to a public vote.
"We still feel equal but we don't feel protected. Equality is not something to be rationed out by those called supreme," said gay Houston resident Van English.
Former City Council member Chris Bell, also a former Congress member running for mayor, urged the council to place HERO on the ballot and dismissed the anti-trans arguments of opponents.
"HERO is not about bathrooms, it is about discrimination pure and simple," Bell said.
LGBT activist Brad Pritchett asked Council members to consider the dozens of HERO supporters who spoke out Tuesday. Pritchett also mocked the petition efforts of HERO opponents. The city threw out the petition calling for a repeal vote, a jury agreed saying the effort was rife with forgery and a district court judge upheld the verdict. Opponents sued and won with the state Supreme Court ruling in July.
"It is important to take a look at the people who have been here," Pritchett said. "That is what Houston actually looks like. People who are giving up hours of their day to talk for 60 seconds. They are not forged signatures on a petition. They are real Houstonians."
And if HERO goes before voters, Pritchett said supporters will win.
"We are going to put it on the ballot and that's fine. We are going to win it. Your constituents need it," he said.
Kent Friedman, board chair of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, warned that if HERO is scuttled, it could cost the city the 2016 NCCA Men's Final Four and 2017 Super Bowl. The NFL title game brings an economic impact "north of $800 million" to the city, he said.
"It would be pretty consistent for those institutions to react the same way if Houston were perceived" similarly to Arizona and Indiana during debates over anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation, Friedman said.
'There is confusion'
But the fireworks came when Andy Taylor (second photo), the attorney for anti-gay HERO opponents who have sued the city, warned the City Council that if the ballot language isn't clear, HERO will end up in court – again. He wants a vote putting the ordinance back in place, not a ballot measure asking voters to repeal HERO.
"You've got to write it so that if you're in favor of the ordinance, you vote yes. If you are opposed to the ordinance, you vote no," Taylor said. "There is confusion. People are thinking this is a repeal vote. It's not."
Before council members questioned Taylor, Mayor Annise Parker issued a warning – to chuckles of laughter from HERO supporters in the audience.
"Council members, I would point out that Mr. Taylor is a lawyer engaged with litigation with the City of Houston so be cautious of the questions you ask," Parker said, delivering the same cautionary note she said she provides any time an attorney suing the city speaks before council.
Parker also said Taylor's interpretation is wrong.
"Our belief is that he is incorrect as we believe he is in many things," Parker said.
City Council member Dave Martin, who voted against HERO in May 2014 when it passed 11-6, pursued Taylor's argument.
"I want to make sure that when we have people go to the polls, they know exactly if they vote yes, what they are voting yes for and if they vote no, what they are voting no for. No games to be played," Martin said.
'I like the new hair color'
Martin then scolded Parker for her comments about Taylor.
"This gentleman, with all due respect, has every right to express his opinion and be treated fairly and with class and dignity whether he's on one side of the argument or the other," Martin said. "I've sat here for six months and I've given that respect to every single person that has come through here and we shouldn't change. I apologize sir."
Parker fired back that the ballot language is clear.
"I don't see how we can make the language we put before you any plainer. It says do you want to repeal this ordinance that does this and it is either a yes or a no. If you want to repeal it, which is what [Taylor] is asking for, you vote yes. And our view, and the legal department's view, is that we are absolutely in the proper position," Parker said.
The council is expected to vote to affirm HERO on Wednesday and put it before voters on Nov. 3, according to a Houston Chronicle poll of council members. Parker said the council would vote twice – first to reinstitute the ordinance and then to put it on the ballot. That's why, the mayor said, Taylor's "advice is incorrect."
Taylor, who aimed personal criticisms at Parker during his fight over HERO, sued the mayor and city again on Monday. Parker couldn't resist another verbal jab at Taylor as he responded to questions from council members.
"I like the new hair color by the way," Parker said to Taylor.