Houston, We Have a Problem

Houston, We Have a Problem
Photo credit: Jeff Wilson

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Citizen magazine. Please feel free to download and share this FREE article with your friends and family ― compliments of Focus on the Family® Citizen magazine.


"The eyes of Texas are upon you," Roy Orbison once sang. On Nov. 3, 2015, the eyes of the nation will likely be upon Texas.

Specifically, upon Houston, where voters will decide whether to approve a city ordinance that, among other things, makes all public restrooms open to anyone claiming to be of the right gender to use them.

It's a vote worth national attention, in part, because of what Houston's openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, did to try to stop it from happening at all. She blocked the voter referendum from last year's ballot, overreaching so far that her move was later reversed unanimously by the Texas Supreme Court. And she issued subpoenas to pastors, demanding that they turn over their sermons on the subject—sparking a backlash across the country.

The vote is also worth national attention because it's one of the first chances citizens will have had to speak at the ballot box since the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the legalization of same-sex marriage in June—and what Texas has to say may rebut the notion that the public has embraced that agenda.

"This referendum finally gives voters a chance to say how they feel in the wake of that decision," says Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, a public-policy partner of Focus on the Family. "How will people in the country's fourth-largest city respond at the ballot box now that they see what five U.S. Supreme Court justices have done?

"If the ordinance goes down to defeat, it'll send a powerful message—that the people want to have the final say on these issues."

Slowing Down the Fast Track

In April 2014, Parker announced the measure, called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). She proposed fast-tracking it through the May 2 City Council meeting and having it take effect immediately.

That set off alarm bells for Saenz.

"We were concerned from the start that there wasn't going to be a public hearing and the people were going to be shut out of the process," he tells Citizen.

Saenz saw the measure threatening religious liberty. He saw it centralizing power in the mayor's administration, which would control investigations—and fines up to $500 a day—of business owners accused of violating the ordinance. And he saw that it would require gender-specific facilities to admit anyone claiming to identify as that gender.

He wasn't the only one who was worried. A standing-room-only crowd showed up at the May 2 City Council meeting, most opposed to the ordinance. Saenz and others, including a diverse group of pastors, testified against it.

"The mayor hadn't consulted with stakeholders in the African American community, and they were very upset," Saenz says. "She'd tried to sell it as something non-controversial, preventing racial discrimination, but it was really about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the pastors felt they'd been betrayed."

In the face of this turnout, the council postponed the vote until late May. Opponents kept up the pressure, with Texas Values Action—the legislative-action arm of Texas Values—rallying its audience to send more than 110,000 emails to city officials.

"There were so many emails sent through (our servers) that the city blocked our system at one point," Saenz says. "They were being overwhelmed."

But Parker, in her third and final term as mayor, effectively controlled the council. When the next public hearing was held, the minority of people present who supported HERO—who'd been given early notice to sign up so they could speak first—dominated the testimony, while opponents were pushed to the back of the line. As time wore on, one City Council member asked permission for some pastors opposing the ordinance to speak, only to be voted down.

Dave Welch, the director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, was astounded.

""This was such a sign of disrespect that all of us got up and walked out," he recalls.

That emptied at least two-thirds of the room. "After the pastors got up and left, you could have heard a pin drop," Saenz says. "That's how many of them had shown up."

'We Weren't Going Away'

HERO passed the City Council by an 11-6 vote on May 28. But the way it passed only fed its opponents' determination to keep fighting.

"People saw the mayor showing such disrespect and disdain, not only for speakers but for other council members," Saenz says. "She would smirk openly. People felt she was acting like a tyrant. And that ended up driving a lot of the opposition. People who'd supported the mayor before on other issues felt like they were seeing her true colors—the rainbow flag."

Under the city charter, citizens can have a public vote on ordinances if enough signatures are gathered to put it on the ballot. But in this case, they'd have to be gathered fast.

"The city charter gave us a tight timeframe," says Jared Woodfill, co-chair of the anti-HERO Campaign for Houston and a member of the Texas Values Action board of directors. "We had 30 days to get 17,269 signatures. We worked with churches, conservative activists and a whole lot of good folks around Houston. We got about 55,000."

Saenz was among those delivering the petitions to City Hall. "You could tell they weren't happy about it," he says. "They were quiet, almost shocked, definitely irritated. We'd delivered three times the signatures needed. That sent a very strong message that we weren't going away."

On Aug. 1, City Secretary Anna Russell drafted a memo to the mayor and city council, stating that there were easily enough valid signatures. In fact, she'd stopped her count shortly after 19,000. Saenz wasn't resting easy, though.

"We knew to look for something to come up," he says. "The mayor had already signaled that she expected to win. They were going to find a way to deny our signatures one way or another."

Sure enough, before Russell officially certified her findings, Parker called her in for an Aug. 4 meeting. Parker later testified that City Attorney David Feldman said he'd found problems with some of the petition forms or circulators, and wanted Russell to include his memo to that effect in her certification. She complied.

That afternoon, Parker and Feldman held a press conference—with Russell conspicuously absent—claiming that Feldman had authority to disqualify signatures on those pages, enough for the referendum to fall short.

And the 35,000 names Russell didn't count because she didn't feel it was necessary? Too late, Parker and Feldman claimed. The certification was done, and the referendum dead, once and for all.

Not hardly.

"Some of us got together and decided to file suit against this decision right away," Woodfill says. "We got into the discovery phase, and the city went after us. They went after petition circulators. They went after pastors. They even went after my wife. Seriously. She signed the petition, and they tried to say I forged her name. They went after everybody."

And then they did something that virtually everyone agreed went too far. They came into the churches—literally.

Your Sermons, Please

One Tuesday night last October, Pastor Hernan Castaño walked into River of Oil Church to teach his regular Bible class. There, in front of everyone, he was approached by a woman with a subpoena.

"I asked what it was all about, and she said you need to turn over your sermons, your text messages, your phone calls, your communications with your parishioners—just everything about you," Castaño tells Citizen.

He soon learned he was one of several pastors who came to be known as the "Houston Five"—also including Welch, Steve Riggle (Grace Community Church), Khanh Huynh (Vietnamese Baptist Church) and Magda Hermida (Magda Hermida Ministries)—who'd received that treatment. The subpoenas ordered them to produce "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession."

"All of us who were there couldn't believe that this was happening in America—that the house of God was being invaded by government, trying to intimidate the voices in the pulpit," Castaño says.

"I just decided to speak up with a louder voice. I was determined that I was not going to be intimidated and afraid to speak. My job is to speak—on what's good for our society and our communities, and especially on what our biblical beliefs are."

Public outrage spread fast, as did denunciation by public figures. Then-Attorney General (now Gov.) Greg Abbott denounced the subpoenas, calling them "a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment." The liberal Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said they'd have a "dangerous, chilling effect."

Facing widespread condemnation, Parker struggled to respond. She acknowledged the wording of the subpoenas was "overly broad" and said she'd remove the word "sermons"—but left in place language that effectively included sermons. She fired off a late-night tweet at 12:12 a.m. on Oct. 15: "If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game."

It took two weeks before Parker finally backed down. By Oct. 29, when she announced that she'd withdraw the subpoenas, the opposition had multiplied. Striking visual evidence came on Nov. 2, when some 7,000 people filled Grace Community Church for "I Stand Sunday," a simulcast rally hosted by the Family Research Council, with support from Texas Values. Featured speakers included the Houston Five and national figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and Phil and Alan Robertson of Duck Dynasty.

To Welch, this was a classic case of how God can take something evil and turn it to good purposes.

"We didn't realize when we got those subpoenas that God had a bigger plan," he says. "The shock factor, once that hit the news and exploded on the national scene, helped to awaken Christians and pastors across America. It was far beyond what we could have envisioned."

Coming Together, Staying Together

In the meantime, the court case over the referendum continued. In April 2015, Harris County District Judge Robert Schaffer, a Democrat, upheld Parker's position. But Woodfill and co. appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court. And on July 24, the Court came down on their side, 9-0.

"Though the ordinance is steeped in controversy, the legal principles at play are relatively simple," the justices wrote. "The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored (by the city)." Administrators were told to repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot.

"We were tremendously excited," Saenz says. "The faith leaders in Houston felt vindicated. Every step of the way, our people followed the rules—and every step of the way, the mayor came up with some maneuver to advance her agenda, avoid justice, avoid having to follow the law. It was such a strong rebuke to her."

Although Parker and the council had to obey the order, they tried to shape the referendum language in their favor.

"The city charter was clear how the vote should go," says Woodfill. "If you're opposed to the ordinance, vote 'No.' If you're for it, vote 'Yes.' The city did the exact opposite. It tried to turn a 'No' vote into a 'Yes,' and a 'Yes' into a 'No,' confusing the voters."

Again, the issue went to the Supreme Court—this time to rule on the referendum wording. And again, the court unanimously held that Parker was in the wrong. The ballot wording must be straightforward, the justices said on Aug. 19: Yes or No on HERO.

Which brings us to today.

We'll know the election results soon. But however the vote turns out, Welch says Houston churches have already benefitted.

"One of the most inspirational elements of this whole battle has been the unity of the pastors," he says. "I've watched pastors from every walk of life—ethnically, denominationally, geographically—not only come together but stay together. They've confounded the political professionals and the media, who just aren't used to seeing black, white, brown and yellow all united in a cause that is not politically correct."

In a similar vein, Saenz says Texas Values Action has grown stronger through the 18-month struggle—and he intends to use every bit of that strength.

"We have a very large, strong following in Houston—partly because it's the largest city, but also because this issue has been such a big deal that we've picked up more people," he says. "We're going to use all those church networks and all our technology—email, social media, radio broadcasts, targeted voter contacts—in a very robust way to get out the vote.

"The impact of that vote will go far beyond the city of Houston. And the impact of this coalition will go far beyond Nov. 3."


Learn more about Texas Values by visiting txvalues.org.

© 2015 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the November, 2015 issue of Citizen magazine.

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