Upholding Religious Freedom in Texas: A Timeline of the History of the Houston HERO Ordinance (2014-2017)

A Timeline of the History of the Houston HERO Ordinance
  • May 2014: The Houston City Council votes to add sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to its non-discrimination ordinance, known as the “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance” (HERO), over objections from local citizens and pastors. The threat to religious freedom and personal privacy from these types of laws is well-documented. In response, citizen groups led by local pastors begin collecting signatures on petitions for a referendum that would put the issue to the voters to either accept or reject.
  • July―August 2014: Citizen groups present petitions to the City containing 50,000 signatures. By law, approximately 17,000 signatures need to be valid, i.e., signed by qualified voters residing in the city. The City secretary is assigned by the city charter to evaluate whether enough valid signatures have been received, and on Aug. 1 she does so. However, the City Attorney steps in and declares most of the signatures invalid, and the City announces that the petition effort has failed.
  • Aug. 2, 2014: The day after the City announces that the petition effort failed, the citizen groups behind the petition effort file a lawsuit against the city to force the City to follow its charter and the city secretary’s certification of petition signatures, allowing the referendum to proceed. It is during the course of those legal proceedings that the City served subpoenas on the various pastors involved, demanding copies of all sermons in which homosexuality was discussed. After a public outcry, the Mayor and City Council back away from their demand for the sermons.
  • July 2015: The Texas Supreme Court in a unanimous 9-0 vote declares the City Attorney’s attempt to invalidate the petition signatures unlawful, and orders the City to suspend enforcement of the HERO ordinance, and either repeal it, or schedule it for a referendum vote for November 2015. The City chooses to place the issue on the November ballot.
  • November 2015: Houston voters reject the HERO ordinance by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.
  • May 2017: Texas passes a law to protect pastors from subpoenas. The law, known as SB 24, is a response to the action of Houston in issuing subpoenas to the churches and pastors involved in the public opposition to the HERO ordinance. The law provides that no unit of state or local government may “compel the production or disclosure of a written copy or audio or video recording of a sermon delivered by a religious leader during religious worship … or compel the religious leader to testify regarding the sermon.”

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