Texas Supreme court ruling benefits both sides in battle over Houston rights ordinance


Richard Carlbom

JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Following a yearlong battle, the race to save — or repeal — the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) has officially begun.

The nondiscrimination ordinance includes protections for LGBT people, as well as other federally protected classes, including sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family and marital or military status.

It applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt.

Those violating the ordinance could be fined up to $5,000.

HERO passed last year after passionate pleas from both opponents and supporters, but has been mired in legal battles since.

Opponents, lead by Dave Welch of the U.S. Pastors Council and other conservative Christian leaders, argue the LGBT protections in the ordinance violate their religious freedoms. And they’ve winnowed in on the gender identity protections.

When citing their specific opposition, the conservatives turn to the typical transphobic scare tactic: The protections would allow men access to women’s bathrooms, giving them the chance to prey on women and girls in those facilities.

HEROic history

Almost immediately after the ordinance was passed, opponents sued and won in court, ultimately halting its enforcement. After their win, they gathered signatures for a ballot referendum in hopes of repealing the measure.

The city fired back, however, throwing the petitions out after claiming too many of the signatures on those petitions were invalid. But after another round of legal wrangling, opponents scored another legal victory when the Republican-controlled Texas Supreme Court ruled that the city erred in throwing out the petitions and must either repeal the ordinance or put it before voters on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The council voted to put in on the ballot, causing opponents to file another suit, this time over ballot language. They argued the language was deceptive, and the state’s highest court agreed last week in a decision, ordering the city to change the language.

Instead of voting in favor of or in opposition to repealing the ordinance, voters are simply being asked whether they support or oppose the ordinance.

Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Houston Unites, which supports the ordinance, said the ruling benefits supporters despite opponents’ claims.

“We’re eager for the majority of Houstonians to vote for keeping [HERO]. Discrimination based upon race, disability, military status, gender identity, sexual orientation or age is not a

Houston value and has no place in this city. A vote for HERO is a vote for treating everyone fairly and equally under the law.”

The campaigns begin

Houston Unites and other organizations supporting the ordinance are keeping their campaign strategies secret. But from what Carlbom did say, supporters are working on media strategy, outreach and coalition-building. While declining to discuss specifics, he said supporters’ strategies include directly engaging other constituencies — outside the LGBT community — that are protected by the ordinance, such as veterans and people of color.

“Our records show 54 percent of claims filed under HERO [during its brief enforcement] have been race-related,” he said. “Reaching all affected communities is key.”

Reaching out to other potential allies is part of any campaign. And Houston Unites already has support from the ACLU of Texas, Texas Freedom Network, Equality Texas and other LGBT-friendly groups.

But other organizations and individuals have also approached supporters, faster than he anticipated. Carlbom again declined to reveal any details, but said he is pleasantly surprised by the response from other sectors of the community.

Lining up immediate support is another part of the strategy.

Getting supporters approach you directly helps, too.

So does getting boots on the ground.

“People don’t listen to politics until Labor Day,” Carlbom said. Upcoming elections for the open mayoral and other council seats should boost turn out among those in favor of HERO.


“An overwhelming number of those running for office support the ordinance,” such as state Rep. Sylvester Turner, Carlbom said. “It’s absolutely positive for us.”

But HERO supporters do need to move fast. The main opposition group, Campaign for Houston, has already purchased $100,000 worth of airtime.

The first opposition ad aired Monday, Aug. 24 and features a woman who wants to become pregnant, but is afraid because the ordinance “will allow men to freely go into women’s bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.”

Carlbom blasted the ad.

“The ad is vulgar and misleading. This ordinance has nothing to do with bathrooms. It’s another scare tactic to mislead voters,” he said.

Carlbom’s group is also looking at the potential impact of voters turning out to decide statewide constitutional amendments, including an increase on property tax exemptions.

Early voting is just around the corner. The first day to apply for an absentee ballot is Sept. 4. And early voting runs Oct. 19-30.

On the day of the election, Nov. 3, Carlbom said, he plans to celebrate and not deliberate.

“It’s going to be a hard and close campaign,” he said. “But we’re not going to lose.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 28, 2015.