Texas

Jury deliberates over petitions at center of embattled Houston equal rights ordinance

Tuesday's referendum has drawn attention from around the nation, with the measure getting high-profile endorsements last week from the White House. Staff Reports

HOUSTON — A jury in Houston heard closing arguments Thursday in a lawsuit surrounding the city’s embattled LGBT-inclusive equal rights ordinance.

Houston, Texas

Houston, Texas

The Houston Chronicle reports the jury is being asked to weigh about six questions that ultimately will help a judge decide whether the city incorrectly invalidated a petition that opponents of the law submitted in an attempt to force a repeal referendum.

Jurors are not examining the merits of the controversial ordinance, which City Council passed last May, banning discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting but exempting religious institutions.

The jury instead is tasked with examining thousands of petition pages that foes of the law submitted last July hoping to force a repeal referendum.

Mayor Annise Parker and former City Attorney David Feldman rejected the petition for alleged collection and notary errors that pushed its signature tally below the required 17,269 valid names needed to force a vote. After the rejection, opponents sued.

Feldman said his staff had found many invalid pages, most notably because some of the circulators who collected signatures were not qualified Houston voters, as required by law. In such cases, all the signatures the circulator gathered would be void, Feldman said.

Other issues included names on valid pages that did not belong to registered Houston voters, Feldman said, and some signatures were gathered prior to June 3, when the ordinance was published and the petition drive could begin.

Geoffrey Harrison, the lead attorney representing the city, said many of the signatures were forged or not notarized properly, which break petition rules outlined in the city charter that has been in place for decades.

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The plaintiffs claim they had 31,000 verified signatures, but more than half of the 5,199 pages of the petition were disqualified.

In the end, the city said there were only about 5,000 valid signatures compared to the 17,269 needed to force a referendum to repeal the measure.

If jurors determine there are enough valid signatures on the petitions to repeal the ordinance, a referendum likely would appear on the ballot in November.

If not, the ordinance could take effect, nearly nine months after it was approved by the city council.

Jurors resume deliberations on Monday.

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