The Houston City Council used the wrong language when it put its nondiscrimination ordinance for gay and transgender residents on the November election ballot, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
As part of the ongoing legal challenge to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, also known as HERO, the council placed the issue on the ballot asking voters whether the city should repeal the ordinance. But the court ruled the council must reword the language because the vote should be on whether to affirm the ordinance, not repeal it.
That means the ordinance will not take effect unless voters say so.
"Though the ordinance is controversial, the law governing the City Council’s duties is clear," the justices wrote. "Our decision rests not on our views on the ordinance — a political issue the citizens of Houston must decide — but on the clear dictates of the City Charter."
The council put the ordinance up for public vote after the Supreme Court ruled in July that it must be repealed by Aug. 24 or placed on the November ballot.
Passed in 2014 after an intense public debate, the ordinance would expand 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 challenged by 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.
After a state district judge ruled in favor of the city in April, the Supreme Court then directed the council “to comply with its duties” in considering a valid referendum petition.
At least nine Texas cities with populations of more than 100,000 have passed nondiscrimination rules offering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents some degree of protections against discrimination.
Cities like Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth have had those protections in place for at least a decade, while Houston, San Antonio and Plano joined that list in the last two years.