By Bob Allen
A petition to overturn a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Plano, Texas, has been ruled invalid because groups including a Southern Baptist megachurch collecting signatures did not follow proper procedure to have the measure placed on a ballot.
A Feb. 20 press release said the city secretary “was unable to certify the petition because it failed to meet state and local requirements for validation.” Officials said the petition used false information by claiming the Equal Rights Ordinance regulates bathrooms and did not meet filing requirements that a copy of the ordinance to be repealed or changed be attached and the petition form include a space for the signer to indicate the county in which he or she is registered to vote.
The petition opposed changes adopted in December by the city council adding sexual orientation, genetic information and gender identity as protected from discrimination in matters of public accommodations, employment, housing transactions and city contracting. Religious organizations are exempt, and the ordinance includes due process for religious-liberty claims under laws including the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A group calling itself Plano Citizens United claimed the Dallas suburb “now criminalizes Christians’, Jews’, Muslims’ and others’ beliefs about men and women” and that the new ordinance “may force businesses to allow men into women’s restrooms and vice versa.”
The coalition said it secured nearly 8,000 signatures on the petition asking the city council either to rescind the policy or submit it to citizens for a vote, far more than the 3,822 equaling 20 percent of the number of votes cast in the last city election.
City officials advised organizers there were problems with the petition three weeks prior to a Jan. 20 deadline for delivery to the Plano city secretary, according to the press release, but despite that good-faith effort not a single page of submitted petitions was valid.
The petition drive got underway with an “Emergency Plano Pastor Briefing” Dec. 17 at Prestonwood Baptist Church, a 37,000-member multi-site congregation with a main campus in Plano.
Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, opened the meeting voicing full support of the petition effort. The church served as one of several places where petitions were available and was the primary collection center when all the petitions were collected before delivery to city hall.
The petition drive was inspired by an earlier campaign in Houston seeking repeal of an ordinance signed in May by openly lesbian Mayor Annise Parker extending equal-rights protections to gay and transgender citizens. That effort fell short, when officials determined barely half of 30,000 signatures on the petition were valid.
A lawsuit challenging that ruling sparked national controversy when the mayor subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who had opposed the ordinance. After outcry from the Religious Right and agreement by liberals including Americans United for Separation of Church and State that the subpoenas went too far, the city withdrew the court order.
A jury hearing the case delivered a mixed verdict Feb. 13, leaving it up to a judge to decide if opponents to the ordinance reached a threshold of 17,269 valid signatures needed for a voter referendum for repeal.
Voters in Fayetteville, Ark., successfully repealed a similar ordinance in a referendum supported by religious leaders representing groups including the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and SBC President Ronnie Floyd’s Cross Church of Northwest Arkansas.
The Arkansas legislature responded with a bill making it illegal for municipalities to adopt local ordinances banning discrimination against gays that became law Feb. 23 when the 10-day deadline passed for Gov. Asa Hutchison to either sign or veto the measure.
Baptists in North Carolina are currently monitoring a pending non-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte derisively labeled the “bathroom bill” by those claiming it would allow sexual predators access to female restrooms by pretending to be transgender.
Last June the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution resisting attempts to “normalize the transgender experience” by allowing access to public restrooms and locker rooms based on self-perception of gender instead of biological sex. The statement also opposed efforts to alter “bodily identity” through use of cross-hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery.
This week the Baptist General Convention of Texas executive board passed a resolution on transgender issues asserting “in the Bible, gender is based on biological attributes and is seen as a gift from God and immutable.” Officials said the resolution came at the request of presidents of BGCT-affiliated universities concerned about federal regulations requiring accommodation for transgender students.
The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, meeting this fall on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recently announced a pre-conference session on “transgender confusion” co-sponsored with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.