The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that Houston violated its own city charter by failing to put its controversial “bathroom law” on the ballot. The court suspended the law and gave the city 30 days to either repeal it or schedule a ballot initiative to approve it.
The law gave transgendered people the right to use the bathroom of their choice, while adding “gender identity” to the city’s equal rights law.
The issue surrounds a petition drive by churches and conservative groups to put the law to the voters. Although the proper number of signatures was gathered, the city attorney ruled that 16,000 of the more than 17,000 signatures were invalid. The city secretary, on the other hand, ruled the signatures were sufficient for a vote.
The court ruled the city attorney had no right to interfere in the process. This is the same city attorney’s office that subpoenaed the sermons and other documents of 5 pastors from Christian churches who opposed the law. The order for the sermons was eventually withdrawn under a nationwide public outcry.
“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,” said the Republican governor in a statement.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which defended the pastors, said Friday that the court “has rightly rectified this wrong.”
“Public officials should not be allowed to run roughshod over the right of the people to decide these types of issues, especially when the citizens of Houston clearly met all the qualifications for having their voice heard,” Mr. Stanley said in a statement.
“The subpoenas we successfully fought were only one element of this disgraceful abuse of power,” he said. “The scandal began when the city arbitrarily threw out the valid signatures of thousands of voters. The city did this all because it was bent on pushing through its deeply unpopular ordinance at any cost.”
The city secretary certified the signatures on July 3, 2014, saying that the petitioners had turned in 17,846 valid signatures, exceeding the required 17,269, the Houston city attorney stepped in and declared invalid more than 16,000 signatures.
The court ruled that the city attorney had no official role in the process, which by charter requires the city council to overturn the ordinance or place it on the ballot after the city secretary has certified the signatures.
“The Charter requires the City Secretary to ‘certify’ her findings, and the only findings she expressly certified were her own,” said the court decision. “The City Attorney may, no doubt, give legal advice to the City Secretary, but he cannot assume her duties.”
At that point, the council should have either repealed the ordinance or placed it on the ballot, “[y]et the City Council decided, of its own accord, not to act, disregarding the City Secretary’s certification that the petition had enough signatures,” the opinion states.
“The Charter, however, gives the City Council no discretion to reevaluate the petition; instead, it requires ‘immediate’ action by the City Council following the City Secretary’s certification,” said the court. “To give authority to the council to make the ultimate determination of sufficiency of the petition would commit the decision to a body that could not be considered impartial.”
At first, Houston’s openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, supported the subpoena demanding copies of sermons delivered in church, but later backed down under severe pressure from Austin and the rest of the country. It’s not the first time we’ve seen liberals use the power of subpoena to undermine the Constitution and its protections of free speech and freedom of religion. The recent “John Doe” investigations in Wisconsin were even more draconian in their intent to intimidate and silence the political opposition.
If, as expected, Houston places the measure on the ballot in November, the issue will roil the mayoral election. Parker is prevented from running by term limits, but the opportunity for a conservative to run on repeal of the law, generating a huge turnout of conservatives, probably bodes well for the law’s demise.