This developing story has been updated throughout the day.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was passed last spring. It prohibits businesses in the city from discriminating against people based on various factors like race, age, gender and sexual orientation. It also provides protections for transgender individuals.
Members of the No UnEqual Rights Coalition expressed their joy about the ruling by the state’s high court.
“We were successful and now we’re looking forward to a big victory in November, because the battle has just begun,” said Jared Woodfill, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit demanding that the city accept a petition to repeal the equal rights ordinance. “Now the battle will be at the ballot box.”
The court’s unanimous ruling means the Houston City Council has 30 days to consider a repeal of the ordinance. If they vote against repeal, it’ll go to the voters in November.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker wasn’t available for comment but expressed her disappointment in the decision in a statement. She also said she has never been afraid to take the measure to the voters.
Council member Ellen Cohen, a strong supporter of the equal rights ordinance, said she believes there will be consequences for Houston, should the law be repealed.
“If you go back and look and see where that has happened in the past, you’ll see that the Super Bowl and others have pulled out when cities have neglected to respect the rights of all,” Cohen said.
Geoffrey Harrison, who represented the city in the lawsuit, said his team is considering remaining legal options.
“There may be a basis — an injunction — to stay the election, not to have the election,” he said. “Because the petition on which the plaintiffs based their entire action, is filled, is rife, with forgery and false oaths, and thus perhaps is not entitled to validity.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling stems from a lawsuit filed last August. In a separate trial in a case brought by the same group, a district court judge sided with the city earlier this year. The plaintiffs appealed and their attorney Andy Taylor said that appeal is now moot.
Meanwhile, the race for votes is already under way. The group HouEquality is now signing up volunteers to reach out to voters and counter the efforts by the No UnEqual Rights Coalition.
The City Council has to vote by Aug. 24 and the referendum would take place during the mayoral election on Nov. 3.
Statements over the Texas Supreme Court decision
Mayor Annise Parker:
“Obviously, I am disappointed and believe the court is in error with this eleventh hour ruling in a case that had already been decided by a judge and jury of citizens. Nonetheless, we will proceed with the steps necessary for City Council to consider the issue. At the same time, we are consulting with our outside counsel on any possible available legal actions.
Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance is similar to measures passed by every other major city in the country and by most local corporations. No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally. To do otherwise, hurts Houston’s well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and embracing of its diversity. Our citizens fully support and understand this and I have never been afraid to take it to the voters. We will win!”
Joint statement from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network, Texas Wins, Freedom for All Americans, Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal:
“HERO embodies Houston values, and we are confident that the voters will uphold it should it end up on the ballot this fall. The fact that enforcement of the ordinance has been suspended, despite it being passed by the City Council, places at risk Houstonians who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. HERO currently protects 15 different classes, including sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy — in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Houston cannot afford to be the one of the largest, most culturally diverse and business-friendly cities in the nation without comprehensive anti-discrimination protections. Discrimination is bad for business. But we believe Houston voters will agree that everyone who lives in and visits this great city has the right to be free from discriminatory and unequal treatment.”
Houston Mayoral Candidate Ben Hall:
“ I am the only candidate in this race that has been steadfast in fighting against the efforts of this current mayor and administration to suppress the voting rights of the citizens to be heard on this issue. I am the only candidate in this race who opposed this ordinance.
If I am elected Mayor I will always honor the right of voters to petition City Hall. City hall has shamed us all. That will not be tolerated under my watch.”
Houston Mayoral Candidate and Rep. Sylvester Turner:
“I support HERO and am confident that voters will uphold the ordinance. Houston is strongest when we work hard, work together, respect each other’s differences and always put the good of the community first.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott:
“Freedom of expression can only exist once government removes itself from stifling free speech, repressing religious liberty and interfering with the lives of its citizens. Today’s decision by the Texas Supreme Court appropriately returns jurisdiction over this matter to voters while reassuring the people of Houston that their personal values remain beyond the reach of government.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton:
“I’m pleased the Texas Supreme Court unanimously threw out this agenda-driven ordinance in Houston. Today’s ruling is a victory for Houston pastors and the people of Houston, who will now have their voices heard. The fundamental rights of free speech and religious liberty must be protected, and this ruling is an important step in safeguarding these rights for Texans.”
Houston Pastors Coalition:
“We are profoundly grateful to God for bringing justice back to Houston through this outstanding 9-0 decision by the Texas Supreme Court. We are thankful to the court for seeing through the veneer of deception used by the City to abuse the law and attempt to silence the voices of the people,” said Rev. Dave Welch on behalf of the coalition. “The essence of the Supreme Court ruling is that Anna Russell’s report that we had submitted more than enough valid signatures met the standards and that the city failed to follow the charter requirements. They stated that we should never have had to file this lawsuit and subsequently ordered the City to do exactly what we asked – just follow the law and let the people vote.”
HERO Ordinance Decision – Texas Supreme Court
Laurie Johnson contributed to this report.