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01/19/2015 09:45 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Anti-Gay Campaign Insists Dubious Petition Signatures Are Just Fine

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A campaign to overturn Houston's just-passed equal rights ordinance hit a roadblock last year when the city said it had found "irregularities" in a petition drive. Next week, the anti-gay rights group behind the petition takes its case to court, still hoping for a voter referendum in the fall.

The ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, military status, sexual orientation, gender identity and several other categories, was passed last May by a Houston City Council vote of 11-6. When Mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city, signed the bill at City Hall, hundreds of citizens looked on and erupted into applause.

But opponents weren’t ready to call it quits.

In the months since, critics of the ordinance, led by the No Unequal Rights coalition, gathered signatures to place a referendum before the voters. In July last year, the group claimed that it was turning in more than 50,000 signatures -- well over the 17,269 required to put the issue on the ballot.

"That's pretty impressive," Dave Welch, a pastor leading the fight, told the Houston Chronicle at the time, "and it shows the nature of what the citizens believe about this ordinance."

Critics contend the count is not as impressive as it looked. In August, then-Houston City Attorney David Feldman announced that fewer than half of the signatures appeared to be valid, leaving the final tally at just over 15,000 signatures -- too low to trigger a referendum. Among other problems, Feldman said that some collectors were not qualified Houston voters -- which would invalidate all signatures collected by those people -- and that many signatures were not those of registered Houston voters.

More recently, the city has ratcheted up the tenor of its claims. Lawyers for the city contend that many of the names were forged, according to Houston Press.

Several members of the No Unequal Rights coalition filed a lawsuit in November, arguing that the city's criteria for validating the signatures was "totally bogus" and that the invalidated signatures were, in fact, "valid in all respects."

The pretrial proceedings do not seem to have gone well for the coalition. Earlier this month, a handwriting expert found that more than half of the signatures were scrawled or unreadable, and that hundreds of the signatures appear to have been written by a single person or the same small group of people. The expert also identified misspelled names, duplicate names and photocopied pages.

One signature gatherer has already admitted that he was not present when some of the petitions he submitted were signed, despite previously swearing that he had personally gathered all the signatures that he submitted.

"From what we can tell, they had to engage in a lot of fraud to collect these signatures," said Kris Banks, an LGBT activist and lawyer who helped organize an independent citizen review of the petitions and the signatures. "I just don't think they have the support."

Attorney Andy Taylor, who filed the lawsuit in Harris County court, did not respond to request for comment.

Welch didn’t dispute that some of the signatures didn’t meet the city’s standard, but insisted to HuffPost that his group had gathered enough legitimate signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

He described Houston's mayor as a "tyrant" and said that the city's equal rights ordinance "creates significant public safety issues." (Welch is fighting a similar battle against an equal rights ordinance in Plano, Texas.)

The latter warning picks up a common fear-mongering theme. Anti-LGBT advocates around the country often argue that if business owners are not allowed to discriminate against transgender people, then men will start claiming to be female in order to gain access to women's restrooms and commit criminal acts. Welch said, "The reality is that does happen."

City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who helped draft the ordinance, expressed rather different concerns. If the ordinance does end up on the November ballot, and fails, that could seriously hinder economic development in the city. "We simply cannot expect to grow and develop when the front page of the paper would say Houston votes against equal rights," she said.

A jury trial examining the signatures will begin on Jan. 26. In a press conference last week, Mayor Parker said the trial could take months. She expressed sympathy for the jurors, "who are going to have to go through page by page, signature by signature."

"But we will do whatever we need to do to defend the position," Parker said.

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