The Texas Supreme Court has ordered the Houston City Council to either repeal its Houston Equal Rights Ordinance by Aug. 24 or put the ordinance to a vote during the city's November election. HERO amended Houston's Code of Ordinances to prevent all residents of Houston from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Court stated that, "though the ordinance is steeped in controversy, the legal principles at play are relatively simple."
The Houston City Council passed HERO on May 28, 2014. Houstonians have the right to dispute any ordinance filed by the Houston City Council by submitting a referendum petition. To dispute HERO, Houston residents needed to submit a referendum petition containing 17,269 valid signatures. Residents submitted a petition containing the required number of signatures and the Houston city secretary certified the signatures. The Houston city attorney, however, claimed 2,750 pages of the petition containing 16,010 signatures were invalid and the petition fell short of the required number.
In its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court stated that while the city attorney could provide legal advice to the city secretary, he could not assume her duties. The certification of the signatures by the city secretary means that the Houston City Council must either repeal HERO or put it to a city vote.
The case made national headlines last October when the Houston City Council issued subpoenas seeking 17 different types of communication, including sermons and e-mails, of five Houston pastors referencing HERO, the mayor, the city secretary, the city attorney, or city petitions. The subpoenas were widely regarded as a significant overreach by the Houston City Council and a violation of religious liberties. The pastors were not parties to the lawsuit. After a national public outcry, Houston Mayor Annise Parker directed the city legal department to withdraw the subpoenas.
This decision is a victory for the voting rights of Houstonians and a precedent for the rest of Texas. In its ruling, the Court stated that, "the legislative power reserved to the people of Houston [was] not being honored." The ruling prevents the Houston City Council from "thwarting the will of the public" and restores the right of Houstonians to challenge ordinances passed by the City Council.