The pastors say the ordinance would infringe on religious liberties and create untenable and potentially dangerous situations for women and children in public restrooms. If the petition signatures are validated by the city, the measure will be put to a vote in November.
Just days before the ordinance's passage June 4, a number of civic and church leaders added their voice to the opposition, including Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church and former Southern Baptist Convention president; David Fleming, pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church; and Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University.
Pastors and members of African American, Vietnamese, Hispanic and Anglo congregations rallied for weeks against the ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They said Mayor Annise Parker ignored public objections to the ordinance in pursuit of a personal agenda as a lesbian.
Ordinance opponents argued the ordinance could force business owners to choose between compliance with the law or their religious convictions. They say that in opening public bathrooms to men and women presenting themselves as the opposite gender, potential sexual predators could take advantage of would-be victims.
"e simply say, 'Allow the people to vote on this ordinance,'" Max Miller, president of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity, said in a July 3 news conference before presenting the signatures to City Secretary Anna Russell. Miller is pastor of Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church.
Miller, also representing a No UNequal Rights Coalition, said prior to the ordinance's passage that the coalition's polling showed 82 percent of Houston's registered voters opposed the measure. He said 10,000 calls and emails from constituents were received by city council members demanding they vote against the measure.
The mayor cited wide public support as well, saying during a news conference that a host of civic and business leaders back the measure.
"We will have the same outcome that we had around the council table," Parker said to cheers from supporters gathered around the podium in the city hall rotunda.
Parker called ordinance opponents "obsessive," accusing them of fixating on only the accommodations for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, especially their access to public bathrooms and locker rooms.
She said it always has been and will continue to be "illegal for a man to go into a women's bathroom. Period."
But according to opponents of the homosexual and transgender accommodations, other characteristics such as race, gender and ethnicity already are protected under city, state and federal laws, making Houston's ordinance redundant and simply a means of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of protected characteristics.
Opponents also say the ordinance provides special rights, not civil rights, hence the charge of "unequal rights."
Parker accused the pastors of lying to promote their campaign, saying, "Houstonians will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole. I would use the word 'lies' but I'm going to back off from that."
Parker also assailed the referendum process, calling city charter requirements a "low bar." In order to call a referendum, 10 percent of Houston's registered voters must sign the petition. The No UNequal Rights Coalition needed 17,269 signatures and gathered 50,000. Of those, the coalition validated 31,000.
The city secretary's office has 30 days to cull through the signatures to determine which are valid. Parker complained that the process will cost the city money as employees will have to be paid overtime to meet an Aug. 4 deadline.
With enough validated signatures, the city of Houston's legal department will craft the wording for the ballot.
"This is going to be another battle," said local political consultant Ron Jackson who was hired by the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC) to direct the No UNequal Rights Coalition.
Jackson, owner of JPBE Consulting, said he expects the Parker administration to draft language putting the ordinance in the best possible light, expunging any references to its controversial tenets regarding homosexuality and transgender accommodations.
Working frequently on civic and political campaigns with Houston's African American church leadership, Jackson created ties making him privy to the development of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance -- called HERO by its supporters -- prior to its public dissemination. Knowing it would be of concern to them, Jackson shared the information with the pastors.
HBU's Sloan, in a letter to the Greater Houston Partnership, a business consortium that endorsed the measure, wrote, "Ours is not an arbitrarily understood position, nor is it socio-politically neutral; and the proposed ordinance is not ideologically, or theologically, neutral. It attempts to coerce, by legal definition, our adherence to beliefs and practices with which we profoundly disagree."
Anticipating Parker would press for the ordinance once elected to her third and final term as mayor, HAPC fought to unseat her in the November 2013 election. Even so, Parker defeated eight opponents, winning 57 percent of the vote.
Dave Welch, HAPC executive director, said a variety of dynamics come into play when promoting an individual for public office, including the effectiveness of a candidate's campaign.
"If they run a terrible campaign, the churches can't shore that up. But this is an issue, not a person," Welch said, noting that an idea is more clearly promoted and public opinion is on their side. "We are standing on a clearly biblical, defensible position."
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
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