The Texas Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the Houston City Council must repeal or put up for public vote a 2014 ordinance that extended protections to gay and transgender residents.
The court directed the council to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, by Aug. 24 or place it on the November ballot. Passed after an intense public debate, the ordinance expanded the city’s ban on discrimination to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity at businesses that serve the public. The protections also apply to city contractors and municipal workers.
The passage of the ordinance was met by challenges from conservative activists and pastors who led a petition drive calling for a referendum or a repeal. But city officials ruled that those efforts failed to draw enough signatures. Opponents of the ordinance then took the issue to the courts, alleging in a lawsuit that the city inappropriately disqualified some of the signatures.
In April, a state district judge ruled in favor of the city, saying opponents of the ordinance had not gathered enough valid signatures for a referendum.
But in its Friday decision, the Supreme Court directed the council “to comply with its duties” in considering a valid referendum petition.
“The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement that the city council would move forward in reconsidering the ordinance, but she noted that she will consult with legal counsel "on any possible actions."
"No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally," Parker said. "To do otherwise, hurts Houston’s well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and embracing of its diversity."
Meanwhile, Republican state leaders celebrated the ruling as a win for religious liberty.
"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,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.
For years, Texas Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed for statewide nondiscrimination laws, leaving the state with a patchwork of local protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas like buses and restaurants.
At least nine Texas cities with a population of more than 100,000 have passed nondiscrimination rules.
For at least a decade, cities like Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth have had ordinances offering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents some degree of protection against discrimination. Houston, San Antonio and Plano joined that list in the last two years.
After the U.S. Supreme Court handed the LGBT community a monumental win when it legalized same-sex marriage, national and state gay rights leaders said last month that their next battle will be pushing for more discrimination protections for LGBT people.