With early voting results in, Houston’s proposed ordinance to establish protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents and several other classes was behind in the polls by a significant margin.
As the polls closed on Tuesday, early voting figures showed 63 percent of more than 130,000 Houston voters who cast ballots early voted against the measure. The embattled ordinance, better known as HERO, would make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ordinance supporters say it’s intended to protect all Houstonians from discrimination and align Houston with other major cities that have similar measures. But opponents have zeroed in on the gender identity protection, which they argue would allow sexual predators to go into women’s bathrooms.
With the Houston vote garnering national attention, a loss for HERO supporters would come after a tumultuous year and half since the ordinance was first passed by the Houston City Council in May 2014.
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Almost immediately, conservative activists and pastors began collecting signatures to petition a referendum or repeal of the ordinance. City officials later ruled that they hadn’t collected enough signatures, prompting a lawsuit from the opponents.
The ordinance had been in effect for about three months when it was put on hold as the legal challenge made its way through the courts. In April, a state district judge ruled in favor of the city, saying opponents of the ordinance had not gathered enough valid signatures.
The case went to the Texas Supreme Court, which in July told the city council it had to consider a valid referendum petition and repeal the ordinance or put it up for public vote.
As early voting began two weeks ago, Republican state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, lent their political muscle to the campaign opposing the ordinance. More recently, the Obama administration and national figures including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders voiced support for the measure.
But as the first big LGBT fight since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June, the Houston vote could prove to be a referendum on the Texas gay rights movement, which has pivoted to discrimination protections since the Supreme Court win.
Texas is one of 28 states without statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Democrats’ inability to pass a statewide nondiscrimination measure out of the Republican-controlled Legislature has left the state with a patchwork of protections across the state.
Including the Houston council’s 2014 vote on HERO, nine Texas cities with a population of more than 100,000 have passed nondiscrimination rules or legislation.
For at least a decade, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin have counted among cities with ordinances offering LGBT residents some degree of protection against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas like buses and restaurants. San Antonio and Plano joined that list in 2014.