Unless you have been living under a rock, there is no way you could have missed the controversy after the Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was introduced by Mayor Annise Parker in April of 2014. What is HERO? HERO is an ordinance (city law) which would ban discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy. In addition to private businesses, the ordinance would extend to city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, and public accommodations. Religious institutions are exempt. In other words, HERO does not apply to them. More on this to come.
“The Houston I know doesn’t discriminate. It really doesn’t matter in Houston, and it shouldn’t matter in Houston, your place of origin, your gender, your age, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love. It’s time to codify in ordinance that position.” – Annise Parker
So, what is the big issue? Well, it seems when Parker first presented HERO, it contained a section that would allow people to use the restroom (or locker room) that best fit their gender identity. This provision was ultimately removed from the ordinance that was enacted in May 2015, but that did not stop the misinformation propaganda campaign machine spearheaded by Republicans. A vocal minority of Houston-area pastors petitioned City Council for a repeal referendum, even though religious institutions are exempt.
This is where it gets interesting. In the city of Houston, if anyone wishes to challenge an ordinance, the city requires 17,269 valid signatures along with some personal, yet relevant, information of the signee to be included with the petition. The pro-discrimination pastors were only able to secure 15,249 valid signatures. Ergo, their petition to repeal HERO failed because it did not fulfill the requirements as prescribed by the City Charter.
“No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally.” – Annise Parker The end, right? Not, so fast. In order to spare you the legal drama, let’s just cut to the ending where the Texas Supreme Court ruled on the lawsuit filed by the pro-discrimination pastors. Lawsuit? Yes, you read that correctly. The pro-discrimination pastors took their temper tantrum to the courthouse steps where they challenged whether the petition signatures were valid, and whether the ballot initiative can go forward. Unbeknownst to them, their lawsuit is not about whether or not HERO should be the law. The Texas Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision that held opponents of HERO failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum. In a 8-0 decision, the Republican “activist” judges issued an ultimatum to the City Council, either repeal HERO or place it on the ballot in November. In essence, the pro-discrimination pastors won the battle, but have not won the war.
Why does it matter? Municipal elections are sleepy compared to the mesmerizing and tantalizing General (Presidential) elections. Roughly, between ten (10%) to thirteen percent (13%) of the voting bloc makes their presence heard on these off years. With the introduction of a faux wedge issue, this could be the last battle for disappointed voters to issue their stamp of disapproval regarding homosexuality, in light of the United States Supreme Court decision last month regarding marriage equality.
HERO is an important ordinance because it affords safeguards from discrimination to Houstonians whom federal and state laws fail to protect. As it stands, Houstonians may be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.
Even though HERO does not even contain the word bathroom, restroom, or locker room, pro-discrimination advocates will not hesitate to slip their demagogue hat on and continue their smear campaign. Their real contention with HERO is that it extends protections to a segment of the community for which they despise. The Mayoral candidates must now walk a tight-rope as they navigate this political quagmire. Ben Hall and Bill King have already voiced their opposition to HERO. Chris Bell, Stephen Costello, Adrian Garcia, Marty McVey, and Sylvester Turner, on the other hand, support HERO. Only time will tell where Houstonians stand on this issue.